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Primark targets 100 percent sustainable cotton

By Danielle Wightman-Stone



Fast fashion retailer Primark has announced a fivefold increase to its Sustainable Cotton Programme, which trains cotton farmers in environmentally-friendly farming methods, as it strives to use 100 percent sustainable cotton across of all its product categories.

The move comes as Primark continues to improve its sustainable credentials with the news that 160,000 independent cotton farmers will be trained in sustainable farming methods across three of its key sourcing countries - India, Pakistan and China by the end of 2022.

The expansion into China marks an important step in the retailer’s ongoing commitment to minimising its impact on the environment, as the project teaches the farmers about the most appropriate 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, as it looks to offer more sustainably-sourced cotton to customers at affordable prices.

Primark’s ethical trade and environment sustainability director, Katharine Stewart, said to FashionUnited in a phone interview: “Primark’s ambition is to get to 100 percent sustainable cotton, we are going as quickly as we can to switch out conventional cotton for sustainable cotton, and it really is growing day-by-day. As quickly as we can get more cotton, it’s going into new products.

“By extending the programme into another major cotton-sourcing country, we will be able to offer our customers even more products made using sustainable cotton – without any price premium - instead at the Primark prices our customers know and love.”

Primark to train 160,000 cotton farmers in sustainability drive, as initiative extended to China

The initiative, launched in 2013, was devised as a way to allow Primark to not only bring more sustainable cotton into the supply chain, but to offer transparency and give its customers “complete confidence” in the source of its cotton, which Stewart states can be “traced from farm to store, to Primark customers, right down to the region where the cotton was grown”.

Cotton was chosen as its main sustainable focus as it is the main natural fibre used to make many Primark products, from pyjamas, T-shirts and jeans, to babygrows, bedding and towels, and sustainable cotton has already started to be used in women’s pyjamas, 14 million pairs sold since 2017, and earlier this year it launched women’s denim, which has already hit 3 million pairs, as well as within 6 million duvet covers and towels, and Stewart added that the scheme would see Primark’s sustainable cotton rolled out to men’s denim and T-shirts next.

Stewart added: “We were encouraged by sales of women’s pyjamas, as that’s the line that we do year-in-year-out, we have sold more than 14 million pairs of that particular style to date, and we were really pleased by how the product line sold through.”

“There is a growing demand from our customers,” stated Stewart, “They want sustainable cotton but without the premium price point, and all our sustainable cotton products are the same price as if they were made in conventional cotton, as all the cotton from this programme trades at the same price as conventional cotton. There is a cost in training the farmers, but we finance that.”

Starting prices for Primark’s sustainable cotton pyjamas is 6 pounds, while women’s denim is 15 pounds, and homeware pieces such as bath towels and cotton duvets start from 3.50 pounds.

Primark ethical trade and environment sustainability director, Katharine Stewart talks Sustainable Cotton Programme expansion

The expansion into China, one of the largest cotton-growing countries in the world and a key sourcing location for Primark, means that the fast-fashion retailer is “one step closer” to its long-term ambition of using 100 percent sustainably sourced cotton across its entire product range.

Stewart, states: “As a leading international retailer, we know that many people rely on us for great quality cotton products at affordable prices. Cotton is one of our most important fibres and, like other retailers, we rely on farmers working in rural communities around the world.

“Improving the long-term sustainability of how that cotton is grown has therefore been a key priority for some time.”

The initiative is operated in partnership with agricultural experts CottonConnect, alongside implementation partners the Heping Cotton Farmers’ Cooperative, which will add more than 80,000 independent cotton farmers in China to the programme. In addition, male and female farmers will also be enrolled onto Primark’s existing programmes in India and Pakistan meaning that, by 2022, more than 160,000 farmers will be equipped with the knowledge and means to grow cotton using more natural farming methods.

Alison Ward, chief executive at CottonConnect, said in a statement: “We’re delighted to continue our work with Primark as part of this industry-leading programme to train more cotton farmers in sustainable farming methods. Not only are we materially changing the lives of farmers and their families in rural cotton communities, but 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.

“We see huge potential among the farming community in China, and we look forward to working in close collaboration with our local implementation partner the Heping Cotton Farmers' Cooperative to develop a programme that meets the needs of local cotton farmers.”

Primark initiative more than just cotton has “significant” increased income for farmers

What started as a way for Primark to be able to be transparent in its supply chain, by directly tracing the sustainable cotton from cotton field through manufacture to delivery to Primark’s stores, has become much more than that for the farmers in rural communities involved in the three-year programme. Not only has the training helped to minimise environmental impact, by minimising water and chemical fertiliser and pesticide usage, but the methods have also increased yields and created “significant increases in income” for the farmers.

In Pakistan, where the programme launched just last year, those who have completed their first year of training have seen a yield increase of 11.2 percent and a 12.9 percent reduction in input costs, resulting in an average profit increase of 26.8 percent, explained Primark. With many of the farmers using their increased profits to invest in equipment for their farms, educate their children and improve their housing and lifestyle.

While the impact of the first group of 1,251 female farmers in India, who participated in the programme from 2013-2016, saw an average profit increase of almost 200 percent and an increase in yield of almost 10 percent. In addition, they reported a reduction of input costs by 15.8 percent by reducing chemical pesticide and fertiliser usage, buying seeds collectively with other farmers, and a reduction in additional labour costs, which led to a 24.7 percent reduction in the use of chemical fertiliser and a 50.3 percent reduction of chemical pesticide usage, and a 4 percent decrease in water.

“This is not just about cotton, these farmers have become micro-enterprises, some of them have been able to buy some of the equipment they used to rent, like tractors and ploughs,” explained Stewart. “They not only use it themselves but they also get incremental income by renting the tractors out to other people as well.”

Primark also notes they have now built a team of more than 110 ethical and environmental sustainability specialists who work in its key sourcing countries to make sure the factories its source from meet a “strict code of conduct”, which it adds is based on the UN’s International Labour Organisation standards, covering everything from working conditions to wages, as they don’t own any factories.

When it comes to addressing the environmental concerns of the fashion industry, Stewart concludes: “We don’t always get the benefit, but we are being proactive in addressing the challenges.”

This has also included the trial of recycling stations at its new Birmingham flagship where customers can return clothes by the brand as well as other companies. In addition, it also has schemes running to ensure that all of its unsold clothing and buying samples are donated, in Europe, they have partnered with Newlife, who collect, sort and recycle these clothes to raise funds for the charity. Since 2010, the initiative has raised 3 million euros. While in the US, Primark has teamed up with not-for-profit organisation Fashion Delivers, which redistributes the unsold items to those in need around the world.

The retailer’s recycling initiatives are not limited to just clothing, they have also increased the levels of recycling within its stores, particularly for cardboard, plastics and hangers. Using Resource Recovery Units in its UK and German depots, the cardboard, plastic and hangers are collected and are reprocessed and sent for onward recycling or energy recovery. This has “significantly reduced the volume of third party waste collections from our stores,” the brand adds on its website.

First established in Dublin in 1969, Primark employs 75,000 people and operates 373 stores, with more than 15 million square foot of selling space, across 12 countries, including Ireland, the UK, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, France, the US, Italy and Slovenia where it opened its first flagship in June.

Images: courtesy of Primark

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