Does more sustainable cotton automatically indicate a brand’s sustainability? Primark communicates the progress of the Sustainable Cotton Program and there is nothing but talk of sustainability after the launch of the Primark Cares line. The Irish fashion retailer, owned by Associated British Foods (ABF), says it aims for garments to last longer, to reduce the company’s impact on the planet and to improve the lives of the people who make the products.
In the section dedicated to sustainability, between attention to the environment and commitment to people the multitude of virtuous messages strikes the reader. Is this really the case if we take a closer look at the data? Why did the sale of the recycled plastic sweatshirt with the word Earth Day, close to Earth Day, aroused not a few accusations of greenwashing?
First, the information on the site is not easily accessible, clear and transparent. Referring also to the pages of the parent company ABF, we try to find out more.
Currently one third of the products are made with recycled, organic or materials from the Sustainable Cotton Program, which involves farmers who apply more sustainable practices. While many techniques are used by organic farmers within the cotton program, Primark’s sustainable cotton is by definition not organic. Primark expects to reach 100% products with more sustainable materials by 2030.
A collection was created in collaboration with Recover, an innovator in recycled cotton. There are recovered plastic fabrics. There is no evidence of the sustainability of all other materials used.
Primark is committed to reducing harmful substances subject to production restrictions (Restricted Substances List) along the supply chain, reaching the goal of “zero release” in 2020. However, there is no evidence that this target is achieved.
Primark declares a commitment to reducing the environmental impact in the design phase of products in the coming years, but there are no details on the decrease in production or the raw materials used, nor on the increase in quality and on the extension of the life cycle of the product.
They say they want to increase the durability level. At the moment it concerns in practice only denim. A much more intensive test cycle of 30 washes was introduced for a large sample of men’s, women’s and children’s denim. This level of rigor is recommended by WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
“96% of all waste generated by Primark’s direct operations was diverted from the landfill”, is reported in the ESG report, without specifying which processes they refer to (it seems to mean those relating to the distribution and sale of fashion items) . Among the published data we read that out of 57,000 tons of textile waste produced in 2021, 54,000 were recycled, with no details on how. The in-store recycling scheme is mentioned, with collection boxes available in all 191 stores in across the UK, recently extended to Germany, Austria and the Netherlands Primark partners with Yellow Octopus, whose goal is that all donations are reused or recycled so that nothing ends up in landfills.
In 2021 Primark created 41,000 tons of packaging. It removed 175 million units of plastic. Uses recycled paper bags. The hangers are made of recycled cardboard. It has eliminated 86 million labels and adhesives from products and aims to eliminate single-use plastics by 2027.
In the ESG report, we read about the commitment to reduce the use of water but cotton, which requires large quantities, is an essential raw material for Primark: in 2020 it represented about half of the total mix of fibers used. There are no data on the total use of water for textile production.
Also in this case we read the objective: 50% reduction of emissions (GHG) along the Primark value chain by 2030. Last year the company directly produced 119,000 tons of CO2e, to which it add 4,783,000 tons indirectly generated by third party transportation and extended inventory.
In the reports of the parent company, the total use for the retail part of 461 GWh is indicated, of which 0% is currently renewable. Primark has achieved ISO 50001 certification for retail outlets, offices and distribution centers in some of the established markets.
Suppliers are chosen according to a Code of Conduct, defined by the company. This set of guiding principles is based on the internationally recognized labor standards of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Basic Code of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI)*. Primark audits its suppliers through an annual on-site inspection. “Our Fair Trade and Environmental Sustainability team has more than 130 local experts”, it explains on the website. “Their task is to carry out, at least once a year, in-person checks at all the plants we work with and also to hold training courses for staff and workers”.
The site mentions a number of projects in India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Among these, the collaboration with the ILO in the Better Work program is the one that gives the greatest guarantee of commitment to improving labor standards in countries where workers are less protected.
Primark was among the first retailers to sign the Fire and Building Safety Agreement in Bangladesh, initiated by IndustriALL and UNI Global Union. It was also one of the first to provide factory victims and families affected by the collapse with financial support and food aid after the Rana Plaza disaster. Primark has since been committed to offering financial advice and guidance. In addition, the Irish retailer has launched the “Pashe Achi Project” to ensure that compensation recipients retain access to their financial compensation.
* It is a leading alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that promotes respect for workers’ rights around the world.
Is everything okay on the social point of view?
On traceability, Primark shares online the map and the list of Tier 1 suppliers map and list of the Tier 1 suppliers (the partners with whom it interfaces directly, who cut and sew the garments).
However, there is no evidence of an increase in the number of paid workers with a living wage, nor transparency on existing working conditions for workers and the supply chain. There is no evidence that all the raw materials used were produced with respect for the human rights of farmers and their communities.
Someone fears that the company’s private talks with workers, described as an instrument of protection, are not sufficient to protect them, because they are not carried out by reliable external organizations. Often union members are threatened or fired: how does Primark ensure that they are allowed inside the factories and protected so that they can do their job freely?
It appears that the annual inspections are supported by independent audit firms, so that the integrity of the audits is not affected. However, the audit reports are not publicly shared, thus generating many questions about how well Primark is ensuring the protection of its workers’ rights. Similarly, the company has a complaints system in place but does not disclose data relating to complaints submitted.
Clean Clothes Campaign denounced lower wages and non-payment during months of detention due to the pandemic by multinationals including Primark. Nearly 70% of the workers surveyed endured periods when normal pre-pandemic wages were not paid. All these workers survived on poverty wages even before the pandemic and it has become even more difficult to live in dignity. Additionally, workers report increased production targets, unsafe working conditions, and harassment from management. Primark has made some progress this year by engaging in #PayUp to raise wages and signing the renewal of the Fire and Building Safety Agreement in Bangladesh.
There is recent news of a Primark manager who sues the company for sex discrimination, after she was told to work late despite having a newborn child (source Independent).
There is no information on the certifications most used in the more responsible fashion, except in some garments such as a type of jeans certified CradleToCradle. Only in cosmetics, cruelty free certified by Leaping Bunny. However, they are not vegan, because some products may contain ingredients from animal derivatives.
Responsible consumption and other issues
The policy of the retail giant is that of low prices, reaffirmed by the recent statement by George Weston, ABF CEO: “We are committed to maintaining our leadership position in terms of price and accessibility in everyday life, especially in this context of growing economic uncertainty”. However, Primark has recently communicated an increase on the tags of the autumn-winter collections, due to the increase in the prices of raw materials and energy following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. For this reason alone, the group expects a reduction in the margins of its activities.
“For more than ten years”, explains Luca Ciuffreda, head of Primark for Italy, “we have been able to guarantee low prices because we do not advertise, we have reduced the packaging to a minimum, the hangers are made of recycled cardboard, and we have control, ethical too, on the production chain, which is often the same as that of luxury brands”(Source Laborability).
Sandals at £ 4, summer bags £ 10, perfume and clothes £ 7, sunglasses £ 2. How is it possible to implement especially social sustainability with such low prices?
The quality is also in doubt. This is the case of surf wetsuits, the subject of debate in these days. A Cornish surf magazine recently attacked Primark’s new range of wetsuits, calling them “cheap”, “sad” and “high treason at sea”. Cornwall Live says the garments will be “thrown away in no time”. The cost for Primark wetsuits is £ 38 for the full length and £ 32 for the short version. By comparison, an Xcel wetsuit, considered one of the world’s leading companies in the field, costs between £ 100 and £ 300. Another trade magazine, Real Surfing Magazine, also hit the fashion chain urging readers to think twice first. to purchase the new product line.
Volumes and speed of purchases
There is no trace of the company’s commitment to produce less with the aim of spreading a more responsible consumption and production model. A fundamental aspect to demonstrate awareness of the climate crisis and the limits of our planet’s resources.
Instead, there are clues to strategies for inviting customers to buy more and things they often don’t need. In the Channel 5 documentary Primark: How Do They Do It?, psychologist Dr Amna Khan put tools on the table to induce people to buy extra items and extend their stay in the store. In the documentary she declares:
“A destination store creates an experience for the consumer, almost like going to a theme park where all your senses are activated and you want to stay longer”.
Primark buys large retail spaces and adds extra experiences such as bars and beauty services to tempt customers to hang out and spend more. Because it doesn’t sell online like many of its competitors, shoppers are forced to visit the store in person, where they are exposed and tempted to purchase more goods and services, such as manicures. The £ 1 secret toy is another tool that Primark shoppers are obsessed with, emotionally captured by childhood memories.
The company has included some recommendations on the maintenance of the garments by the customers in order to extend the life.
A Primark’s customer claims that a store-bought bra left her skin sore and sore. Rika Smith from Blackwood was left with itchy and sore skin after wearing the garment for the first time.
A woman in size UK 10 was furious after purchasing a pair of size 12 pants from Primark without being able to put them on. Ally Marie told her story on TikTok to send a message: “Primark this is ridiculous, no wonder people are struggling with body image. I normally have a size 8/10 in jeans and I have to take a size 14 from Primark”.
In the speed of releasing new collections and the pressure to design new garments, ultra-fast fashion companies are not new to episodes of plagiarism. The presentation of a coat on Instagram was greeted by an avalanche of “likes” and compliments, but also by the Daily Record‘s observation of the strong resemblance to the oversize coat from the winter collection of Blancha, a Tuscan clothing brand. The original garment is in shearling, made in Italy, and the quality in the design and production phase is reflected in the price.
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