Primark-hating snobs and a flood of liberal hypocrisy

Sep 28, 2010
Brendan O'Neill

Why would the liberal elite cheer floods in Pakistan? Because they hit unethical Primark customers hard

If you thought there couldn't possibly be an upside to the recent devastating floods in Pakistan and China, think again. They may have killed thousands of people and made millions homeless, but by devastating much of Asia's cotton-crop industry they have also helped to push up the price of cotton.

And, according to excitable hacks and so-called ethical consumer experts, that is a good thing - because it could bring to an end what one journalist snootily describes as the "cheap clothes era", where "completely mindless" shoppers rummage around in places like Primark for £2 t-shirts and £6 pairs of jeans.

See? Every flood has a silver lining.

You could almost smell the Schadenfreude that has broken out among the opinion-forming classes after it was revealed that shops like Primark would be hit hard by the flood-induced rise in cotton prices.

Managing brutally to overlook the fact that the drowning of the cotton fields has robbed many Pakistanis and Chinese of their livelihoods, the Guardian's ethical agony aunt Lucy Siegle trills that at least "the global shortage of cotton may restore respect for this important crop", especially because "retailers, including Primark, will need to put up their prices".

Independent columnist Janet Street Porter welcomes the hike in cotton prices because "cheap clothing is like crack cocaine – once you've tried it, it’s hard to give up". Again she mentions Primark as one of the main dealers in this "crack cocaine" and welcomes the fact that, now, "our ready supply of bargains could be coming to an end".

Just as God sent floods to punish the people of Noah's era, so Nature hopes to help wean the mindless shoppers of the West off their addiction to cheap tat

Liz Jones at the Daily Mail hopes the cotton price rise will make British consumers shop more ethically. In her view, "the choice between buying clothes responsibly or snaffling up a pair of bargain-basement £3 jeans from Primark should be a no-brainer".

But maybe that's the problem: Primark shoppers have no brains. A columnist for Investment Week magazine says: "I find it completely mindless when you see people struggling around a Primark store, ripping clothes off the pegs and shoving them into huge baskets just because they are cheap." His response upon hearing news of a cotton price hike was: "Hurrah!"

So just as God sent floods to punish the people of Noah's era for their Godless, oversexed ways, so Nature is sending floods to help wean the mindless shoppers of the West off their addiction to cheap tat.

When the Investment Week writer insists that this is not about "clothes snobbishness", he is protesting way too much. Demonising Primark and its thoughtless shoppers has long been a way for the Selfridges-patronising sections of society to assert their moral superiority over the tasteless lower classes.

An online magazine called Beauty School Dropout, which promotes sustainable fashion and living, has said explicitly what mainstream hacks normally only hint at: that Primark shoppers are "bloodthirsty sub-human beings with red eyes and frothing mouths".

Nothing gets up the noses of the cashmere-wearing, organic-eating commentariat quite as much as the thought of poor people venturing out to buy bag-loads of cheap clothes. Can't these washerwomen and urchins "make do and mend" like their forebears did, stitching together the same old shoes and trousers for decades?

Indeed, an ethical advice website actually called 'Make Do and Mend'
has also welcomed the end of the cheap clothes era, because "whilst financially this is going to be a blow for some, for many it will just mean that they think more carefully before they purchase new outfits, which in environmental terms has got to be a winner". Nice.

In recent years there have been numerous newspaper features revealing that some of Primark's clothes are made in sweatshops in Asia. TV documentaries – with titles such as The Devil Wears Primark – have shown Primark shoppers photographs of the children who make their tat in order to try to induce some emotion in these weird bargain-hunting robots.

Yet behind the liberal classes' alleged concern for the living conditions of people in the Third World, what really motivates their anti-Primark hysteria is a view of Britain's less well-off shoppers as insufficiently ethical people, who, in Investment Week's words, have "no sense of value".

Indeed, it is striking that Primark-haters who normally pose as pro-developing word are now implicitly cheering the floods in Pakistan and elsewhere, which of course have devastated much of the developing world. That's because they are not really concerned with improving life over there, but rather with hectoring the feckless, bargain-grabbing poor over here.

They have a cheek to brand a mum who buys cheap clothes for her kids as "unethical" - because what could be more unethical than implicitly giving thanks for life-destroying floods on the basis that they will at least make life harder for Britain's Primark junkies?

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