Towards the end of 2022, Primark Netherlands hosted repair workshops at the retailer’s store in Rotterdam, where customers could learn to sew on a button and replace a zip. Ellen Haeser, teacher and owner of trend agency Studio Haeser, hosted the workshop with the support of students from Zadkine fashion training courses. Such an initiative at a brand like Primark is likely to raise questions among some consumers. After all, the Irish fashion chain, which is part of Associated British Foods (ABF), has not always been well received in the past on the issues covered within its sustainability framework. For example, think back to the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 and a label that was sewn into a Primark garment with a cry for help in 2014.
Added to this is the fact that Primark is known not to have been too open about its work initiatives in sustainability, especially when compared to other fast fashion competitors like H&M. In 2013, Primark accelerated its “sustainability” efforts with the launch of the Primark Cares project. The project focuses on targets for 2025, 2027 and 2030, related to “extending the life cycle of clothing”, “protecting life on the planet” and “improving people's living conditions”. The first results of this came at the end of November 2022. FashionUnited sat down with Primark's general manager for the Netherlands, David Swann Lassche, and head of external communications, Maria Doyle, to discuss some of the questions raised by Primark's sustainability initiatives.
Can you tell us a bit more about the repair workshop?
David Swann Lassche: The workshops were already very successful in the UK, so we are very happy that we can now offer Dutch customers this opportunity as well. We want customers to enjoy their clothes for longer and at the same time understand that we have a responsibility in this. If you have a garment that you love, first of all, that is of course fantastic. When you can then repair an item that has broken in this way, it also makes customers more aware of their clothes.
What have the workshop’s reactions been like?
Lassche: Good! This is our first repair event in the Netherlands and participants are very positive. Customers visiting the shop and witnessing it on the sidelines too. They shared their enthusiasm about Primark taking on this kind of initiative and understood that we have a role to play here.
How does Primark view the concept of 'fast fashion'? Do you see yourselves as a fast fashion brand?
Lassche: There is a misconception about how our brand is perceived. About 50 percent of the products we sell are basics, like hoodies, socks, and white or black t-shirts. These are not statement pieces that go out of fashion. We provide customers with clothes they can wear for a longer period of time, and that often passes people by. In addition, 45 percent of products sold are of the recycled and more sustainably sourced Primark Cares label. That's a huge share, which we are very proud of. Especially after just over a year of launching Primark Cares. That's incredible for us.
Recently, you announced that you will not let consumer prices rise further this year despite rising production costs. A positive gesture to lower-income consumers. In times of rising costs, how do you ensure that you maintain these low prices? Where are costs being compensated?
Lassche: That all has to do with our large reach, which is part of our business model. Because we have such a wide reach, we can ensure that even lower-income customers can buy more sustainable products at affordable prices. As a company, we are very focused on people, and so are the people we serve. It is important to offer them an affordable more sustainable option especially in times of financial crisis.
Every company is obviously facing higher costs at the moment, but for us the decision has been to ensure that customers do not feel let down. For exact figures on where costs may have been reduced compared to previous years, wait for our financial report. It is too early at this stage to indicate where expenses may be offset.
Indeed, in a personal letter on the Primark website, Primark CEO Paul Marchant stated, "Customers should not have to choose between affordability and sustainability. Primark Cares is designed to meet that need. This is more sustainability built in as a standard, not an optional extra that costs more.'' In light of adjusted production standards (such as more recycling, better labour standards, higher wages, shorter hours), how do you still maintain low prices?
Lassche: For us as a company, our aim is to do better every day. If you look at the scale of what we sell, we can really make a difference here. As a company, our size gives us a huge opportunity to make changes and make an impact. Everything takes time. We are not perfect. Nor do we rush or run, we take the right steps to ensure that the change we made is sustainable. That is something I am personally very proud of: we want to get there and we are taking the steps. We have been working on this for some time, but with Primark Cares we have accelerated our plans. Especially in the current economy, we think it's important that people continue to make these choices, including those on lower incomes.
Do you think lower prices respond to overconsumption and thus counteract a sustainable mindset?
Lassche: If you look at the customers we serve, and I link back to the 50 percent of sales of basics that I just mentioned, we are offering people the clothes they need. When 45 percent of that is also under the Primark Cares label, we are offering people the opportunity to make a more sustainable choice. In that sense, we encourage customers to keep shopping and wear what they love, but at the same time make sustainable choices.
With the repair workshop, we are trying to help customers love clothes for longer, but also to understand that clothes can be worn for multiple seasons. For example, I've had this coat hanging here for four years, I'm very proud of it. It is a misconception that our clothes are worn once or twice: instead, we take pride in the fact that our clothes can be worn longer.
How does Primark view the customers who take advantage of low prices to buy large quantities for shorter time periods?
Lassche: I think it's great for customers to experience our shopping experience and the choices. We obviously have customers who come in and buy a lot, but we also encourage them, through our Primark Cares label, to make sustainable choices and wear the clothes for longer.
It's a great experience to show people that we have interesting products, including the most up-to-date fashion. At the end of the day, we are a retailer, a shop, and we offer people the opportunity to buy affordable clothes and look and feel good. By 2030, all our clothes will be made from sustainably sourced or recycled materials, which is a fantastic goal. And the fact that after just one year, 45 percent of our items sold already fall under this, that's a huge step and something we as a company can be really proud of.
In your Primark Cares sustainability targets, you state that by 2030 you aim to achieve a 'living wage', promote equal opportunities for women and improve the health and well-being of workers. How do you plan to achieve these goals? After all, you don't have your own factories and outsource production. Do you move production to other compliant companies, or do you push for wage increases in factories you already work with?
Maria Doyle: Indeed, we currently do not have our own factories, but we work with ethical government agencies based on our own code of conduct. This code states very clearly what we expect from our suppliers, based on Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards. No orders are placed at a supplier's factory until this commitment is made and we are satisfied that these standards are met. Compliance with this commitment is monitored by our team of 130 experts worldwide, based in each of our key sourcing markets, and by our external audit partners. Every factory in our finished goods (tier one) supply chain is audited at least once a year, usually unannounced - and in some cases more frequently.
Lassche: We currently produce our clothes in many of the same factories as other 'high-street' retailers. So developing in this is also something that happens in collaboration with other retailers.
On the Primark Cares page, Primark states that before a factory is approved by the brand, it is assessed against internationally recognised standards set out in your code of conduct/code of conduct. Factories at the final stage of production are audited at least once a year for compliance with the code of conduct. What about the first and second stages of production?
Doyle: The size and diversity of our supply chain makes traceability a challenge, but it is something we continue to focus on and work hard to improve. As our programmes evolve, so does our traceability. Over the past five years, we have published our Global Sourcing Map, which details the factories where our finished products are made, in addition to the number of employees working at each location.
We know we need to do more and have started testing a new traceability platform with a number of suppliers that will give us more visibility into our extensive supply chain. We have already provided training on transparency and traceability to more than 450 apparel suppliers and will continue to raise awareness around this important topic.
We also work closely with our suppliers to ensure that cotton from our Primark Sustainable Cotton Programme (PSCP) is segregated and traceable. We use a system called TraceBale to help us track and segregate cotton from farmers in the PSCP to our supply chain. Given the complexity of the cotton supply chain, we wanted to go further and were one of the first retailers to partner with Oritain, a specialised scientific verification company. We combine Oritain's data with the TraceBale database to help verify the traceability of cotton from the PSCP.
Your Primark Cares targets state for 2030: “Strive for a living wage for workers in the supply chain.” Why 2030? And what does striving mean?
Lassche: Currently, we pay all workers the same wage as average retailers. As part of the Primark Cares strategy, the aim is to arrive at a living wage that is sustainable and scrutinised. Research and work needs to be done to get there. By striving, we mean doing our utmost to fulfil our commitments. We do not run away, but ensure that the decisions we take have longevity. It is about being realistic.
Will this goal be more complicated by keeping your prices the same in 2022?
Lassche: I think because we have taken the time to achieve our goals in a sustainable way, we have enough time to make the right decisions to get where we want to go. The end goal is to be more circular. This involves understanding the economic environment and making decisions that do not detract from the goals. Based on this, we reassess our choices every year. We are really committing to 2025, 2027, 2030 and achieving the targets.
In partnership with WornWell, Primark offers second-hand clothing. However, these collections do not contain Primark's own clothes. Why don't you resell Primark's own clothes? In your opinion, would reselling Primark clothing be a good business model?
Doyle: WornWell by the Vintage Wholesale Company is a vintage concession in a small number of our shops across the UK selling a wide range of branded and unbranded vintage clothing. This partnership offers customers the chance to buy vintage and one-off items while shopping with us and is designed to complement the offer in our shops. We look to partner and support local brands and businesses that we think our customers will like.
We are working hard to become more sustainable within our own business and have a clear roadmap of initiatives to achieve this. We support anything that helps give clothing a longer life, including our clothing, but there are currently no plans to sell second-hand Primark clothing as part of the concession or in our shops.
How do you deal with textile waste resulting from the production of your products?
Doyle: We aim to become a circular company and work closely with our suppliers to explore how we can help close the loop and turn textile waste into a new raw material. One example is our collaboration with the Circular Fashion Partnership (CFP), led by the Global Fashion Agenda. The programme started in Bangladesh with the ambition of reducing dependence on virgin textile materials and increasing the availability of recycled textiles. Although we are in the early stages of this partnership, we know we can do more and want to pass on the lessons to other suppliers.
We also partner with Recover, a leading materials science company and global producer of high-quality, low-impact recycled cotton fibres and cotton fibre blends. Our partnership with Recover, launched in 2020, helps us expand our use of recycled fabrics. The company converts textile waste into recycled fibres and blends that can be reused. In July 2022, we launched our second Primark x Recover collection and became the first retailer to use the unique RColorBlend fibre on an international scale.
Another step we have taken is appointing a circular product lead and setting up a circular training programme to teach our product teams about circular design practices and strategies so that products can be more easily recycled. 24 product team members and six suppliers participated in our pilot circular design training programme.
We also work to educate our customers about caring for, repairing, reusing and recycling their clothes so that they can remain in use for longer before being recycled through our in-store donation system, charity shops or textile banks. We have set up 43 repair shops in the UK and Ireland and will continue to expand them. In all shops in four markets - the UK, Ireland, Germany and Austria - we have a Textile Takeback Scheme, accepting clothes of any brand and in any condition. This accounts for 65 percent of all our international shops. Our goal is for all collected clothes to be reused, recycled or repurposed. Profits from this programme go to Primark's global partner, Unicef, and more specifically to Unicef's education programmes for children around the world. We are keen to expand our Textile Takeback programme to all markets, but will only do so if we can be sure our programme works with local regulations and infrastructure and for customers in that country.
We also aim to eliminate single-use plastic and all our other waste by 2027. We have made good progress, the biggest being the establishment of a Packaging Centre of Excellence. We estimate that we have removed more than 600 million units of single-use plastic since 2019. Since the launch of Primark Cares last year, we have diverted 95 percent of the waste generated in our direct operations from landfill. Clear guidelines have been developed to explain how we should treat and manage each type of waste we produce.
This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.NL. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.