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Does Primark really have the ambition to become a sustainable and circular company?

Today, September 15, 2021, the international retail chain Primark is launching a new sustainability strategy planned to roll out globally over the next ten years. The fashion giant, known for their cheap fast fashion clothing, proudly announces their big plans. For instance, they want to halve their carbon footprint and improve the lives of production workers. Sounds good, but can they live up to these goals? At COSH! we seriously question the feasibility of these ambitious plans.

1. More sustainable materials

One of Primark's goals is to produce all of their products from recycled or more sustainable materials within the next ten years. Currently, this is the case for 25% of all items sold.

In order to meet its ambitious target, the retail chain set a first goal to produce all basic t-shirts for women, men and children from 'sustainably produced cotton' before the next spring collection. By this, Primark means that less chemicals will be used in the production of the cotton.

What does Primark consider to be sustainable cotton?

The 'sustainable cotton program' used by Primark was set up by the fashion chain itself but does not provide any guarantee or standard for the sustainability of the cotton. The program was established in 2013 to train small-scale cotton farmers to grow more 'environmentally friendly' cotton and increase their income. According to Primark, farmers in India have reduced their use of chemical pesticides by 40%on average. They also reduced their use of chemical fertilizers by 25% and their water use by 10%. The long-term goal of this project is to make all their cotton fully traceable and from sustainable sources.

If Primark were really making an effort to use more sustainable materials, the giant would opt for GOTS certified organic cotton, but there is nothing about this on their website. The fashion giant only talks about using 'fewer chemicals', without using specific figures. Primark's Sustainable Cotton Programme therefore gives us greenwashing vibes!

It is impermissible for the fashion giant to use the term sustainable, where small sustainable brands have for years been using truly traceable organic cotton, produced with 0% chemicals and only 1 third of the blue water used.

What are the advantages of organic cotton?
Recycled polyester

Recycled polyester is a material that is incorrectly promoted as a sustainable alternative for the fashion industry. Primark is also betting on this material. Recycled polyester is really not as environmentally friendly as it sounds. For clothes that are washed often, the discharge of microplastics is a huge problem and this goes against the Sustainable Development Goal of 'Clean Water'.

Moreover, when you mix this recycled material with a natural material such as cotton, for example, it is impossible to recycle it again after use. Unfortunately, we saw this mixture before with sweaters from the brand. At COSH! we advocate for monomaterials because then the textile can be recycled more easily after use.

Another question that comes to mind is how they can continue to offer recycled materials at low prices, as recycled polyester is generally more expensive than 'new' polyester. Will this switch have an impact on the wages of factory workers? If Primark claims to keep its prices proportionate?

2. Recycling of garments

As a second point, Primark also promises to make adjustments in its design process to ensure that clothing can be recycled when you’re done wearing it. The chain is doing this in partnership with WRAP, a British organization dedicated to bringing more circularity to the fashion industry. Exactly what changes the brand is planning, however, is not clear.

At COSH! we mainly wonder if Primark will also change anything about their high production rate. The chain produces a gigantic amount of clothing each year, which has a huge impact on our planet. If Primark wants to credibly present itself as a sustainable player they will have to produce less clothing and increase the quality of their products. They should also opt for mono-materials so that their clothes are easier to recycle. However, this is not possible without raising the prices of their products.

"The fast fashion business model needs to be eliminated. A few small marketing stunts and events won't solve the mass volume production and inhumane working conditions." Niki de Schryver, COSH!

3. Halving CO2 emissions

Primark also commits to halving the CO2 emissions of their own operations and those of the supply chain. The retail chain aims to eliminate all single-use plastic within Primark. We at COSH! can only applaud that goal but shipping and selling clothes consumes so much plastic that we question whether the goal is feasible. We also question whether the alternative will be better, since Primark does not make it clear what kind of material will replace the plastic.

For example, if the plastic were to be replaced with bioplastics, it would not immediately be a hugely sustainable switch. Bioplastics are not as biodegradable as expected, so you can't throw them away with the organic waste either.

We would also like to see the chain move away from plastic materials in the clothing itself. When polyester fabrics are washed, for example, microplastics end up in the water stream, a silent killer. Biodegradable fabrics would be a more environmentally friendly option.

4. A living wage for workers in the supply chain

Primark refused to sign the extended Bangladesh accord until 1 day before airing their sustainable press release on September 15, 2021. This agreement holds brands accountable for safety in their supply chain. Therefore, among other things, electricity in factories is regularly checked to prevent factory fires. The Bangladesh accord originally came about after the Rana Plaza disaster in 2014. During that disaster, many factory workers died because a huge factory building collapsed while people were working here.

In addition, Primark has its own code of conduct and a Modern Slavery Statement that sets requirements for working conditions. However, at COSH! we wonder how they monitor conditions in factories, as they are currently (last measured in May 2021) working with 928 factories across 28 countries. Primark employs over 1 million people. Clean Clothes Campaign reports that Primark treated their workers abominably during the COVID lockdowns. Find out if our Belgian retail chains did better here.

What is the price tag of these sustainable promises?

In many cases, sustainability comes with a higher price tag. Yet Primark says it will not change its affordable prices. Here we ask ourselves the question, how can Primark pay living wages without charging this towards the consumers? Does the chain admit that for years they took a margin that was too big on the hood of the workers in their production chain?

"More sustainable but at the same price? Does Primark admit that for years they took a margin that was too big at the expense of the workers in their production chain?" - COSH!

Primark's goals and promises sound good at first glance, but unfortunately are not very concrete. The retail chain communicates big on sustainability but we lack transparency and concrete figures to back up their plans. So as a consumer, do not be fooled by large chains that claim to be sustainable, because there is still a long way to go!

Would you like to discover sustainable and ethical fashion in your area? Then take a look at our shopping guide!

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