Classism is ugly. It’s ignorant, and is too often dressed down as softer, more digestible things. As a working class scouser, I know this all too well, as throughout my life, I have experienced the many shades of classism to varying degrees. On the whole, most people don’t mean to be callous and discriminatory, but casual classism is so deeply ingrained and hidden in people’s psyches. It has been for years. It’s masked in people’s responses, judgments and in people’s jokes.
What we witnessed today was casual classism. Since this morning, I have been cringing reading the blatant classist responses on Twitter and beyond, from people who have been shaming the shoppers of Primark. There is a mixture of reasons to why people are shopping there today. Yes, there are undeniable, complicated and vast ethical issues with Primark, but I believe the judgement that has been thrown towards Primark shoppers has been misdirected. There is a large group of shoppers, not all, but a sizeable group, who do not have another option to shop elsewhere, for the simple reason that it is considerably cheaper than other high street alternatives. For many people, they don’t have a choice, and I don’t expect privileged middle class folk to have empathy, because they don’t understand what that’s like.
“The demonising of Primark shoppers today has been a snapshot of just how classist the UK still is.”
I wish it wasn’t the case, but the sad facts are that sustainably sourced clothes are a lot more expensive. The other reality is that Primark, like many shops on our high street (don’t forget, there are tons of other stores out there exercising the same practices as Primark, they just hide it better), is exploitative and unethical. However, it remains a fundamental problem that unsustainable products are the cheapest. Better options should be more inclusive and open to everyone, but the reality is, they so often aren’t.
The demonising of Primark shoppers today has been a snapshot of just how classist the UK still is. During lockdown, there’s been plenty of middle class masses queueing for sourdough bread, takeaway premium coffee, organic food hampers, earthy vitamin supplements, artsy decor and craft beers. The difference is that those people have been able to afford to do that through the majority of lockdown. For a lot of the people shopping at Primark today, they haven’t been able to afford what was on offer to them during the last 14 weeks. Comments like, “Look at all those idiots queueing up!?” on Twitter, scream middle class people, who presumably have had everything they need throughout lockdown.
The snobbery has been unkind. A lot of families can’t afford the majority of the ethical clothes and homeware on the market today, and there is no shame for those parents queuing up who can only afford Primark summer clothes for their kids. In these unforgiving economic times, people have lost jobs and incomes, and for some families, three months is a long time to wait with limited money coming in and growing children.
It’s no coincidence people are zooming in on a brand associated with working class shoppers and calling them stupid. Primark shoppers have long been the target of classism. I’ll never forget following an Instagram account on how to become more ethical in your shopping. Fantastic, I thought, I care about the environment and I need to be doing more. Every day, the account would post ways to “live better”. It would look a little something like, “swap out your £1.50 soap for this £6.00 ethical soap”. It always stunned me with its blind spot that so many people care about the environment but they can’t afford the price tags.
Today was a classic example of the UK wanting to portray working class as the enemy, rather than looking closely at the harmful and oppressive systems at work. Primark shoppers are not the enemy. As I walked through my city centre today, I witnessed news reporter crews along with members of the general people sneering at the orderly, socially distanced queues of Primark. “Pathetic,” I heard one woman say, while walking past the people in the Primark queue, swinging a Lush bag brimming with Instagram-worthy bath bombs. Just to paint the picture for you, Primark and Lush in Liverpool are just next door to each other. Both queues were a similar length and everyone was socially distanced in both. As I continued to observe, I didn’t see any snide comments or pity looks towards those waiting in the Lush queue. Just like I didn’t see any one disapprovingly shaking their head at the bundle of hipsters trying to cram into Nike. Poor shaming is more fun apparently. There were also long queues outside Marks and Spencers, Kate Spade, Urban Outfitters and Pret, but I guess it’s easier to make fun of Primark shoppers.
If you’re reading this thinking this is only a discussion about fast fashion, and whether it’s just a simple matter of what’s right or wrong when it comes to sustainable fashion, it’s not. It goes so much deeper than that. If only it was that simple to buy affordable ethical goods. It’s not something that exists widely in the market but hopefully that will change in time. And if you really feel that it’s as simple as just choosing to help the planet, then I’m sure I can hear your Ocado order knocking on your door.
Jessica Evans is a freelance journalist.