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Are Asos and Primark’s Sustainability Agendas Too Little, Too Late?

Asos is gunning for net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. Primark has vowed to make all of its clothes from recycled or more sustainably sourced materials in that same period. The two retailers say they’ll be able to do this by raising prices only modestly, or not at all, proving that fashion can be both democratic and better for the environment.

“Our ambition is to offer customers the affordable prices they know and love us for, but with products that are made in a way that is better for the planet and the people who make them,” Primark CEO Paul Marchant said Wednesday. “We know that’s what our customers, and our colleagues, want and expect from us.”

At a time when scientists are sounding every possible alarm on the climate crisis, fast-fashion companies face mounting pressure to justify their model of high volumes and low prices. It’s estimated that the apparel and footwear industry is responsible for between 4 percent and 10 percent of global carbon emissions. The popularity of fast fashion, and the unbridled consumption and labor exploitation it encourages, its critics say, is fueling an ecological and humanitarian disaster.

“Consumers have become more concerned about sustainability over recent years; this is especially true of younger consumers. As such, retailers are keen to respond to these trends,” Neil Saunders, managing director of retail at analytics firm GlobalData, told Sourcing Journal. “The moves by Asos and Primark will help consumers overcome some of the guilt associated with buying fast fashion. The underlying problem is that, by its nature, fast fashion isn’t a particularly sustainable sector.”

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Asos says it’s working to address this. Through its updated Fashion With Integrity program, which it unveiled Thursday, the online platform promised to focus on “minimizing Asos’s impact on the planet, delivering positive benefits for people who work in fashion and meeting increasing demands from customers for greater choice in responsible fashion.”

Under the scheme, Asos plans to achieve carbon neutrality across all direct operations by 2025 and its entire value chain by 2030. Over the next decade, the London-headquartered firm will pivot to more circular systems, ensuring that 100 percent of its own-brand products and packaging are made from recycled or more sustainable materials, including organic cotton, cotton from the Better Cotton Initiative, and modal and viscose from non-endangered forests. To tackle waste, Asos says it will promote programs for recycling and reuse in some of its 200 markets.

It will also seek to drive transparency and human rights by publishing an annual human-rights strategy and implementation report beginning in 2023, ensure that all third-party brands sign up to the so-called Transparency Pledge by 2025 and provide “full public transparency” of every own-brand product by mapping them to the raw-material level by 2030. And like Boohoo before it, Asos will tie executive bonuses to its performance on these objectives, it said. Asos stocks more than 85,000 products from 850-plus brands, including its own private-label range.

“We are proud that over the last decade we have been among those leading our industry when it comes to responsibility and sustainability,” said CEO Nick Beighton. “The responsibility for a sustainable future lies with all of us and businesses must lead the way. We will make sure we deliver products and brands that allow our customers to shop ethically and responsibly, safe in the knowledge that they are reducing their impact on the planet and contributing to a fairer world.”

Primark is adopting a similar tack. The discount retailer, which sells more than a billion items a year in nearly 400 stores across 14 countries, including the United States, has pledged to pare back its environmental footprint by improving the durability of its wares by 2025 and making them “recyclable by design” by 2027. The Associated British Foods-owned company, Britain’s largest clothing chain by revenue, also says it will manufacture 100 percent of its clothes from recycled or more sustainability sources by 2030, up from the one-quarter it currently lists under that description. The shopping chain referred to fibers from initiatives such as CottonConnect and its own Primark Sustainable Cotton Programme, which train farmers on regenerative techniques that slash water and pesticide use and boost yields.

In addition, the purveyor of $10 dresses and $16 shoes aims to eliminate non-apparel single-use plastics by 2027 and work with its suppliers to halve carbon emissions throughout its supply chain by 2030. Within the next 10 years, the bricks-and-mortar-only operation will seek a living wage for the workers who make its products and invest in schemes that create opportunities for women. Primark will do this, its CEO said, as part of a longstanding goal to “make more sustainable fashion affordable for all.”

Luxury shoppers in China spending 28 per cent more per online purchase than in 2014, study shows
A young Chinese woman browses the Chinese website of online fashion shopping retailer Asos in Shanghai, China, 14 November 2013. AP Images

“We believe that sustainability shouldn’t be priced at a premium that only a minority can afford,” Marchant said. “This isn’t the start of our journey. We’ve been working to become a more sustainable and ethical business for over 10 years. Our new commitments mark a significant acceleration in the pace and scale of change, requiring us to think differently about how we do business, from how our clothes are designed and manufactured, through to how we sell them in stores.”

Not everyone is convinced, however. Both companies, fashion campaigners say, continue to take a growth strategy that doesn’t interrogate the need to pump out less into the world. It doesn’t matter if a business’s per-product footprint is going down, they add, if its total footprint is going to balloon unchecked.

“Most fast fashion brands grow so fast that they outstrip the gains they’re making to be more sustainable,” Elizabeth Cline, advocacy and policy director at Remake, a fashion advocacy group based in California and New York, told Sourcing Journal. “They need to be looking at reducing total impact, not just making more ‘green’ products.”

Likewise, Cline said, circularity only has environmental benefits if it replaces new stuff or virgin resources. The term “sustainable” in and of itself has very little meaning and many brands are less than precise when describing what they mean by it. This amounts to greenwashing, she added.

“I’m worried brands actually think these announcements are ‘ambitious,’” Cline said. “Every single climate change report has indicated a need for a systems change. Using recycled content or cotton grown under more sustainable circumstances is not a system change. This list of efforts is actually a bare minimum and should have been implemented already.”

There’s also the brands’ continued reliance on what environmentalists have dubbed “fossil fuel fashion.” According to a study published in June by the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, some 65 percent of Asos’s items contain virgin plastics such as polyester, acrylic and nylon. Speaking to Changing Markets Foundation over the summer, Asos said the amount of synthetics it’s been using has been increasing. The think tank also placed Primark in the worst-performing “red zone” for its use of fossil fuels in clothing. Even recycled versions of these materials, it said, present a “false solution” because they’re still one step away from the landfill or incinerator.

Other vague verbiage in the brands’ espousals have people like Dominique Muller, policy director of Labour Behind the Label, a workers’ rights organization from Bristol, concerned. “Primark mentions it will ‘pursue’ a living wage for workers without actually making any commitment to paying a living wage,” she told Sourcing Journal. “Our research and recent FashionChecker.org shows clearly how the vast majority of brands have continued to make meaningless promises all the while failing to make any actual progress at all. For that to happen, Primark must set out its benchmarks with a concrete timeline and actually pay a living wage.”

Nor has Primark provided details about how it will achieve its aims and how it will be held accountable, unlike Asos, which has some “strong commitments” to transparency in its reporting, Muller said. But both, she noted, fall short by failing to mention responsible or fair purchasing practices, which are essential to achieving non-poverty wages.

“Neither brand has a focus on freedom of association—the ability of workers to organize and represent themselves is key to improving working conditions and wages,” Muller added. “Primark instead references its work with Care International in Bangladesh—a project which seems to be the one paid for by British taxpayers under a scheme established by the government to help secure supply chains for British consumers by supporting U.K. brands—a tortuous road to worker empowerment and responsible brand sourcing if there ever was one. Workers need a living wage, not charity.”

Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a grassroots organization that emerged in the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, regards many corporate pledges with a mix of cautious optimism and skepticism. Asos and Primark have both signed the new International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which succeeded the Rana Plaza-born Accord for Fire and Building and Safety in Bangladesh on Sept. 1 and holds signatories legally liable for safety conditions and worker wellbeing at the factories that make their clothing. One of Primark’s suppliers operated out of Rana Plaza, so it’s a promising start. But more can and should be done, she said.

“​​No sustainability claims can deliver unless bookended by slowing down excess products and paying all supply chain workers a dignified living wage,” de Castro told Sourcing Journal. “Full stop.”