Primark finds partnership brings sustainable cotton from field to store

by Katharine Stewart | Primark
Tuesday, 8 August 2017 15:22 GMT

A farmer trained in sustainable farming through Primark's training programme is seen picking cotton in Gujarat, India, in January 2017. Primark/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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The idea of sustainable cotton isn't new, yet 12 percent of cotton produced around the world is classed as sustainable

One in three women's pyjamas bought in the United Kingdom are from Primark. A little-known fact I spent some time reflecting on during a recent trip to India with our buying team.

The trip marked an important milestone. From this August, a range of women's pyjamas made with sustainable cotton grown by female farmers in India will go on sale as sustainable cotton becomes a permanent feature in Primark stores.

The idea of sustainable cotton isn't new. Yet only 12 percent of cotton produced around the world is currently classed as sustainable. In many countries, cotton is often grown on small farms where it is then aggregated and sold on the mass market. Good progress has been made, but it remains difficult to track cotton at every stage of the supply chain, from field to store.

At Primark, cotton is the biggest fibre used in our products. As a former buyer now with responsibility for the ethical trade programme, I was confident we had the knowledge and leverage to be able to make a difference, but I wanted to be clear from the outset what sustainable cotton would mean for Primark. For us, sustainable cotton is about reducing the environmental impact of cotton production, whilst also improving the livelihoods of the farmers, and doing so in a way that means we continue to deliver great value to our customers.

Figures from the International Trade Centre show that women account for 70 per cent of cotton planting and 90 per cent of hand-picking, so we focused our attention here. In 2013 we partnered with agricultural experts CottonConnect and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) to train female farmers in Gujarat, north western India, a cotton growing region used by our suppliers. Today, more than 6,000 female farmers have received, or are receiving, training in sustainable farming methods through the programme. We hope to reach a further 5,000 women over the next five years. 

Last year, we were ready to see whether we could pull cotton from the programme through our supply chain and into our products. It’s a journey that has taken lots of perseverance at every stage of the supply chain.

CottonConnect has played an integral role in this process. We've used their REEL cotton code, independently verified by FLOCERT, the organisation that provides Fairtrade International certification, to ensure that the cotton produced through the programme is sustainable.

Our buying and ethical trade teams have also worked hand in hand with CottonConnect and our suppliers to track the cotton through our supply chain in India. And this is just the start. Last week in India, we brought together over 80 people from all the different parts of our supply chain -- the CottonConnect team who are working with the farmers, the ginners, spinners, mills and also our garment suppliers. Together we spent time looking at how we can scale the programme up further, knowing that this will only happen with the continued strong partnership we’re developing through the supply chain.

During the course of these conversations I was reminded of one of the women I've met over the years, Varsha, a mum of two who has been farming for 25 years and involved with our programme for the last three. Her cotton yield used to be 600 kg per acre and it is now 1,250 kg. Six months ago she bought a tractor. She has also taken out life insurance for her family. Is she happy? Yes, she says and her husband is proud. 

We know this is only the first step towards all the cotton we use being 100 percent sustainable, but it does feel significant. For now, when someone picks up a pair of our sustainable cotton pyjamas, they'll know that the cotton used has made a material difference to women’s lives in India, to the lives of their families and communities and to the environment.

Katharine Stewart is ethical trade and environmental sustainability director at Primark.