Primark’s Sustainable Cotton Programme — potentially the largest independent programme managed by a fashion retailer — enables it to trace the source of its sustainable cotton, right down to the community it was grown in.
Many brands have made commitments to use only sustainably sourced cotton, but how does it actually work in practice? We caught up with Lindsey Block, Ethical Trade Controller at Irish retail giant Primark, which has stores throughout Europe and the eastern US; and CottonConnect CEO Alison Ward to hear about their partnership bringing sustainable cotton from field to fashion, and the plans to scale up to new sourcing regions.
Cotton is the main fibre used to make Primark’s products — from womenswear, to menswear, kidswear, bedding, towels and so on. Making up approximately half of their products overall, the case for Primark choosing cotton as a place to start driving significant change at scale was a clear one.
Over the past decade, the retailer has committed to bringing more sustainable cotton to customers at affordable prices. Primark was founded on the idea that fashion should be affordable to everyone, and that ethos has been extended to their sustainable products.
Primark’s commitment to sustainable cotton goes beyond what customers see on the shelves. As part of Primark’s Sustainable Cotton Programme — thought to be the largest independent programme managed by a fashion retailer — it is able to trace the source of its sustainable cotton at every stage of the process, right down to the community it was grown in. They are also committed to training and educating 160,000 cotton farmers on more environmentally friendly farming practices by 2022.
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This month, as part of the newly announced "A Better Future" campaign, Primark is launching a new everyday essentials range across Kids’, Men’s and Womenswear made using sustainable cotton and other recycled materials originally sourced from plastic bottles and discarded waste. This will more than double the available items made from recycled materials to 40 million, and increase the number of sustainable cotton products made using cotton grown from the Sustainable Cotton Programme to 60 million items.
So, how did this commitment to sustainable cotton begin?
It all starts with a pilot
Roll back to 2013, when Primark partnered with CottonConnect — an organisation with a mission to transform the cotton industry for good — and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), to train female farmers in India in sustainable farming methods.
“As part of our sustainable sourcing strategy, we have a long-term ambition to ensure that all the cotton we use is sustainably sourced,” Primark’s Block explains. “For us, sustainable cotton means reducing the environmental impact of our cotton production and improving the livelihoods of the farmers, without passing the cost onto our customers or compromising on the quality of the products they love. After partnering with CottonConnect, we chose SEWA as our expert partner in India — a key sourcing region — due to their extensive local knowledge and our desire to work with women farmers in the country.”
Each farmer involved in the three-year Primark Sustainable Cotton programme, based on CottonConnect’s REEL Cotton Code, is trained on more sustainable farming techniques for their land — from seed selection, sowing, soil, water, pesticide and pest management; to picking, fibre quality, grading and storage of the harvested cotton. In India, what makes this programme different is the focus on female farmers.
As CottonConnect’s Ward explains: “Women play key roles as workers in cotton farming — undertaking up to 70 percent of cotton planting and 90 percent of hand picking — yet their role is often unrecognised. Without specific outreach efforts, just four percent of women join any form of training programme. Yet, the potential of women’s influence in cotton-farming communities is huge. We were pleased when Primark showed a particular interest in improving gender equality and women’s empowerment in cotton-growing communities in India.”
The programme has since been rolled out to include both male and female cotton farmers in more of Primark’s sourcing markets.
Image credit: Primark
For both Primark and CottonConnect, measuring the impact of the programme was a must from the start. Results from the first intake of farmers in the pilot far exceeded expectations: Not only did the quality of cotton improve, but the sustainable farming methods taught through the programme greatly improved the livelihoods and incomes of the cotton farmers — thanks to increased cotton yields; as well as saved input costs including water, chemical fertiliser and pesticide usage.
Crucially, this unlocked environmental as well as social benefits. By the third year of the programme, farmers used 40 percent less fertiliser, 44 percent less pesticide and 10 percent less water when compared to the control farmers.
Farmers who have completed the three-year training programme have increased their profits by almost 200 percent; and many have used these increased profits to invest in equipment for their farms, educate their children, or improve their housing and lifestyle.
Securing buy-in and ownership within the business
“Having impact results from the Primark Sustainable Cotton Programme was vital for securing buy-in within the business and deciding to use this programme to introduce sustainably sourced products to our customers,” Block says. “We appointed a member of our team to specifically work on this programme, providing a link between CottonConnect and the business; and also our own sourcing and brand teams. Following the successful introduction of sustainable cotton pyjamas into store in 2017, we were in a good position to launch our 100 percent sustainable cotton jeans in March 2019.”
“For us, it’s so important that the cotton produced in our sustainable cotton programmes is actually linked into the supply chain,” Ward continues. “We’ve seen how if you start small, over time you can demonstrate to the business that it is viable. At a company like Primark, even a small change can make a big difference because of their size. We got enormous buy-in from the business on this work, which enabled the programme to scale up.”
The progress that Primark has made with the Sustainable Cotton programme so far is just one step on its sustainability journey.
As the retailer expands its sustainable range this Autumn, Primark remains committed to offering customers a greater choice of more sustainable, affordable products. Primark will continue collaborating with industry experts such as CottonConnect to drive this change.
“Our continued partnership with Primark as part of this industry-leading programme is materially changing the lives of farmers and their families in rural cotton communities,” Ward concluded. “By working closely with Primark and their supply chain partners, we have been able to trace the cotton all the way from the farm into products — a challenging but important step towards increased supply chain transparency.”