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Primark, Ellen MacArthur Foundation Respond to Criticism of Circular Jeans

The road to circularity is not without its obstacles—or its skeptics.

Not long after debuting its first collection designed in line with the Ellen MacArthur Jeans Redesign guidelines, Irish fast-fashion chain Primark was met with scrutiny from the online denim community.

In an Instagram post, denim designer, educator and 2020 Rivet 50 honoree Mohsin Sajid criticized the collection for potential greenwashing. Through his Denim History account, Sajid questioned the durability of the garment and the credibility of Primark’s sustainable claims, first calling attention to the jeans’ inner tag which includes no mention of organic cotton.

“They claim that [they] are using organic cotton and recycled content, [yet] nothing is mentioned inside the garment about these attributes,” he said in the post. “[Knowing] how much [organic cotton] is really available leads me to believe it’s most likely not.” Sajid’s statement follows the global shortage of organic cotton, as the few regions able to grow the crop are having difficulty meeting the high demand.

He added that the fabric appears to be unable to withstand domestic washing—a requirement listed within the Jeans Redesign guidelines—and that the pocketing is “practically transparent.”

The Jeans Redesign guidelines were established in 2019 based on expert-provided insight as a way to set a standard for garment health that would make it easier to recycle denim at its end of life. The guidelines include minimum recyclability requirements such as using cellulose fibers from regenerative, organic or transitional farming methods, including easy-to-remove hardware, and foregoing the use of any hazardous chemicals. Guidelines were updated in July to require the use of recycled content.

Lynne Walker, director of Primark’s sustainability strategy Primark Cares, noted that the collection meets all of the Jeans Redesign standards, with adult jeans in the collection made from either 70 percent organic cotton, 29 percent recycled cotton and 1 percent elastane, or 70 percent organic cotton and 30 percent recycled cotton. Both kids’ jeans are made of 78 percent organic cotton, 20 percent recycled cotton and 2 percent elastane.

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She added that all of the organic cotton and recycled cotton used by Primark in this collection is fully traceable via OCS and RCS certification, and that, given the number of markets the brand operates in, there are labelling challenges that “relate to space and translations.” For more accurate information, she said composition details are shared in stores at the point of sale and on Primark’s website.

Walker confirmed that zips and buttons can be removed, and that the brand has undergone “extended durability testing through independent third-party accredited laboratories” to ensure denim withstands a minimum of 30 washes.

“The collection has been created to comply with the detailed technical guidelines set out for all Jeans Redesign participants and we’re confident through our own auditing and reporting that these have been met,” Walker told Rivet, adding that the low price point is a reflection of the company’s priorities. “Like everything we sell, our business model is key to the affordable prices we are able to offer our consumers—you won’t see any big advertising campaigns from us, we don’t sell online and we are able to buy at scale, so that’s why we are able to offer the prices we do.”

This is not the first time Primark has been met with skepticism. In 2016, The Guardian news outlet published an article stating that the retailer had been criticized for “profiting from cheap fashion in developed nations” by sourcing from suppliers in regions of the world experiencing poverty, where “unethical or exploitative labor practices are much harder to regulate.”

Primark and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation respond to criticism of a Jeans Redesign collection some believe is guilty of greenwashing.
Primark Jeans Redesign collection Courtesy

The company claimed that every single facility is audited by a third party, and that it achieves its low prices by placing large orders with suppliers that save money by sourcing fabrics close to the factory.

Since then, Primark has increased its sustainability efforts, launching Primark Cares in September and committing to producing more durable clothing by 2025. It also aims to make products that are recyclable by design by 2027 and source more sustainable or recycled materials by 2030.

But critics’ issues aren’t reserved for Primark. In the same Instagram post, Sajid criticized the Jeans Redesign guidelines for allowing any percentage of polyester, which many agree hinders a textile’s recyclability. But while any percentage of polyester can make recycling more difficult, it doesn’t completely prevent it. Research from Accelerating Circularity, a collaborative focused on making apparel more circular, indicates that current widely used recycling technologies can deal with a small amount of non-cellulose fibers like polyester in the fabric. Laura Balmond, Make Fashion Circular lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, noted that this data was used to create the Jeans Redesign requirements, which are intended to be viewed only as a starting point.

“The guidelines are a ‘minimum bar’ established with the intention to be regularly reviewed and updated to ensure the Jeans Redesign continues to drive the industry forward,” she told Rivet, adding that more updates are on the way.

Balmond said that the foundation relies on the initiative’s participants to provide certifications that ensure the standards are met, adding that “a lot of care has gone into designing the Jeans Redesign to make it as robust and transparent as possible.”

Balmond noted that there is “full transparency,” and participants are required to report on their methods and progress every two years.

“Many of the businesses that produce and use fashion products are part of the problem today, but they can and should also be part of the solution as they have the power to change the way we design, make and use garments,” she said. “The Jeans Redesign can support them on this journey.”