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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
We caught up with Lindsey Block, Ethical Trade Controller at Irish retail
giant Primark, which has stores throughout
Europe and the eastern US; and
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
— 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?
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
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.
“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
into store in 2017, we were in a good position to launch our 100 percent
“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.”
Published Sep 17, 2020 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST