Critics of fast fashion often reach for Primark as an example of everything that’s wrong with the industry: exploited garment workers, clothes made from damaging synthetic materials and garments designed to be worn just a few times before being dumped into landfill.
Primark seems an unlikely partner for the Ellen McArthur Foundation, a leading organisation dedicated to accelerating the transition to a circular economy. However, the retailer is indeed taking part in the Jeans Redesign, a project launched by the Foundation to create denim aligned with circular economy principles. A circular economy is one in which there is less need for the extraction of new resources from the environment because resources are kept in circulation through re-use, repair, re-sale, recycling and other circular practices. The guidelines for the Jeans Redesign project require that (1) jeans are used more (2) jeans are made to be made again and (3) jeans are made from materials that are safe and either recycled or renewable. This means that Primark’s Jeans Redesign denim is designed to last; made to be disassembled so that they can be re-made or recycled; and made from materials that don’t pollute the environment with hazardous substances, or that are recycled. One of the most innovative aspects of Primark’s Jeans Redesign clothes are that they come with instructions telling consumers how zips and buttons can be removed from used clothes so that the material can be re-made into new clothing.
It seemed too good to be true: circular economy denim available at Primark prices?! To find out more, I went into Primark’s flagship store, in Birmingham, which is the world’s biggest Primark store. The store is mega with a huge beauty studio, a blow-dry bar and overwhelming selection of clothes.
· There was an impressively high level of engagement from the staff at Primark, who enthused about how the company had been transitioning into sustainable denim. This felt very genuine. A store manager showed me her favourite sustainable jeans.
· Surprisingly (to me) prominent and detailed communication of sustainability was visible in store — photos below. The communication did cover the most important environmental impacts of clothing according to planetary boundaries science: water stewardship, renewable energy which doesn’t contribute to climate change, and safe materials that don’t cause chemical pollution. This suggests a science-based approach.
· The jeans are Gold-certified by independent organisation Cradle to Cradle ® which is a robust and credible certification scheme (1) and (2). The details of the requirements for certification are available here.
· More than 11 million people buy women’s clothes in Primark. The retailer has huge reach, and is able to make buying sustainable clothes a possibility for huge numbers of people thanks to their accessible pricepoints. Sustainable clothing is often viewed as irrelevant or out of reach for most consumers, either due to expense or because the styles aren’t what people want. Primark can play a huge role in democratising sustainable fashion.
· Primark has a reputation for underpaying its garment workers, so I was intrigued to find out more about the cradle-to-cradle ® standards for ‘social fairness’, which is one of its five criteria. Under the scheme, companies are required to have and implement a human rights policy which would include prevention of child labour and forced labour, to implement a positive social impact project, and to have effective human rights risk management in place. The certification does not include paying a living wage to workers, which is something that activists have demanded from fashion retailers. Primark have committed to, “pursue a living wage for workers in our supply chain, work to improve their health and wellbeing, and promote equal opportunities for women” — by 2030. Today I wouldn’t feel confident that workers have been paid sufficiently or that their wellbeing has been safeguarded.
· Only a small percentage of Primark’s range belongs to the Jeans Redesign range or has been cradle-to-cradle ® certified so far. The danger is that a “halo effect” is exploited by the company, whereby it talks up the small proportion of clothes that are sustainably made to communicate the misleading message that the brand as a whole is sustainable when it isn’t.
· I’m sceptical about how durable the clothes are. The Jeans Redesign project demands that a pair be able to withstand 30 washes, which doesn’t seem a huge number as I’d expect jeans to last years. That said, washing jeans less is recommended for sustainability.
Big fast fashion companies aren’t going away. Far more people shop from truly sustainable brands — even though there are loads to choose from, including some that are quite reasonably priced. Sure, it’d be great if everyone switched to Nudie jeans but that’s really unlikely. Improvements by Primark can have great impact because of their sheer scale. Primark is still so far from perfect, but their participation in the Jeans Redesign is a stride in the right direction.
(1) Niero, M., Negrelli, A. J., Hoffmeyer, S. B., Olsen, S. I., & Birkved, M. (2016). Closing the Loop for AluminiumCans: Life Cycle Assessment of progression in Cradle-to-Cradle certification levels. Journal of CleanerProduction, 126, 352–362. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.02.122
(2) Bjørn A., Hauschild M.Z. (2018) Cradle to Cradle and LCA. In: Hauschild M., Rosenbaum R., Olsen S. (eds) Life Cycle Assessment. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-56475-3_25
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