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Can Primark Really Claim to be Sustainable?

Primark Oxford Street
How does a fast-fashion retailer hawking $3 graphic tees for boys—at full price—win an award for corporate responsibility?

That’s what happened last month when Primark, the Ireland-based apparel, accessories and homewares chain, beat five other shortlisted entries to take home the nod for “Best Contribution to Corporate Responsibility” for its sustainable cotton program at the Chartered Institute of Procurement’s (CIP) Supply Management Awards.

The program, which Primark extended by six years earlier this year, is carried out in partnership with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and social business CottonConnect to introduce more sustainable farming methods to female smallholder cotton farmers in Gujarat, India, in traditionally male-dominated farming communities and villages.

“This was an extremely well-thought out and executed entry. It takes its organization onto a new level and will enhance its reputation significantly,” the judges said.

Initially set up as a pilot program three years ago and supported by Primark’s ethical trading and environmental sustainability teams in India, SEWA said the program saw significant results by year two.

More than 1,200 female smallholders were trained, resulting in an average profit increase of 211 percent, which many used to improve household welfare and to invest in education for their children. In addition, average yields increased by 12.6%, input costs were reduced by 5 percent, fertilizer and pesticide usage was cut by 13.5% and 53.5% respectively, and water usage decreased by 12.9%. Over the next six years, an additional 10,000 female farmers will be taken through the program.

“Primark has been working hard for the last decade to ensure that the rights of workers within our global supply chain are respected and the lives of people working within the garment industry in emerging markets change as industrialization brings new jobs and opportunities,” Paul Lister, who is responsible for Primark’s ethical trading team, said in a statement last March.

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But as a piece in The Guardian pointed out recently, Primark does not disclose how much cotton it buys, or from where, despite the raw material being the most common fabric used in its clothes. Nor has the retailer revealed exactly how much money has been invested in the sustainable cotton program.

A spokesperson told The Guardian, “Although Primark buys no cotton direct from producers, our long-term ambition is to ensure all the cotton in our supply chain is sourced sustainably.”

Primark also doesn’t own the factories that make its products and doesn’t reveal their names, but the company claims that every single facility is audited by a third party. A statement on Primark’s website points out that it can offer the lowest prices on the high street because it places large orders with suppliers that save money on transport costs by sourcing fabrics close to the factory.

So while the retailer is taking steps to make its supply chain more ethical, it’s still falling short on transparency.