Primark: Hitting the Mark on Addressing Climate Change

Climate change is forcing fast fashion retailers like Primark to confront the environmental implications of their supply chain.

Fast fashion supply chain criticized for lack of sustainability

Although lesser known in the US than its “fast fashion” counterparts including Zara and H&M, Primark is a significant player in the global clothing industry. This industry – whose production doubled between 2000 and 2014 – has been the focus of much criticism from environmentalists [1]. A subsidiary of Associated British Foods, Primark is known for having some of the lowest prices in the fast fashion space, achieved through a flexible supply network comprised of global “large scale and long-term contracting and sub-contracting” [2].

Companies like Primark have come under fire because of the environmental impact of their supply chain and of their products. With its vast manufacturing and shipping network to supply its stores located mostly in Europe and in the US, Primark’s water consumption grew by 6%, GHG emissions grew by 15%, and energy consumption grew by 21% between just 2014-2016 [3]. Clothing also accounted for 4.4% of total waste in the US in 2013, more than double its share in 1990, an increase that fast fashion has undoubtedly contributed to [4].

Primark is committed to reducing environmental impact of its supply chain

Although Primark has historically been “relatively quiet in terms of what it does [for] sustainability,” management at the company has started to act in recent years to mitigate the contributions of Primark’s supply chain to climate change. They are focused on 3 specific strategies:

  1. Full traceability of the product supply chain
  2. Environmental, health and safety compliance in all direct and indirect operations
  3. Improved environmental performance of products and raw materials [5]

In the short term, this has meant focusing on the sustainability of Primark’s stores. Primark has achieved the Carbon Trust Energy Standard and the Carbon Trust Standard for Waste for its in-store practices [3]. The company has also become “more actively involved in the recycling process of its materials” to “significantly reduce the volume and frequency of waste collections at each store” [3]. Moreover, the company has joined forces with industry collaborators like the ZDHC Foundation, the Leather Working Group, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to work together to improve practices [5].

In the medium term, more of Primark’s sustainable supply chain strategies will materialize. Management has set a multi-year roadmap to achieve “zero use and discharge of hazardous chemicals” (see graphic below) [5]. As a part of this endeavor, Primark is equipping suppliers with a Chemical Management Toolkit and asking them to commit to Primark’s zero use goals. As of May 2017, 70% of suppliers had committed to Primark’s goals and 100% had designated a responsible chemical manager [5].

Source: [5]

Primark has also received much positive press for its long-term cotton sustainability strategy. Although it purchases no cotton directly, it has “set a long-term ambition to ensure all the cotton in its supply chain is sustainably sourced” [6]. In 2013, it began a 3-year engagement with CottonConnect to empower rural women in India to adopt more sustainable cotton farming practices [7]. The program trained 1,251 women and was so successful that Primark decided in 2016 to scale up the initiative to train 10,000 more women over the next 6 years [6].

… but is Primark doing enough?

It is not clear, however, that Primark is taking sufficient action to address the sustainability issues in its supply chain. Most importantly, Primark has yet to take significant measures to reduce its GHG emissions, which grew by 15% over the last 3 years [3]. As Primark further expands its footprint in America, GHG emissions will likely continue to grow with increased transportation costs. The company should consider shifting more transportation to using renewable energy or should purchase carbon offsets.

Much of Primark’s supply chain concerns regarding climate change have to do with mitigating Primark’s impact. It does not seem from the literature available that Primark’s management is concerned with adapting its supply chain to climate change. For example, on the product front, Primark should consider its selection and timing of warm weather versus cold weather clothing in light of changing weather patterns. On the sourcing front, Primark’s executives need be mindful of climate change vulnerabilities in countries, like Bangladesh, from where it sources [3,8].

Although Primark has made great strides to improve the environmental impact of its supply chain in recent years, the question remains as to how committed management really is to these initiatives. Why has management resisted setting targets for many of the environmental initiatives? Why was management so quiet about sustainability efforts for so long?

Regardless, the onus is equally on the consumer as it is on management. Despite the benefits provided by affordable, fast fashion, consumers must be aware of the environmental impact of the fast fashion supply chain.

(788 words)

Sources

[1] “Looking Good Can Be Extremely Bad for the Environment”, The Economist, (April 8, 2017), https://www.economist.com/news/business-and-finance/21720200-global-clothing-production-doubled-between-2000-and-2014-looking-good-can-be

[2] Ivanov, D., Tsipoulanidis, A., Schonberger, J., “Operations and Supply Chain Strategy” in Global Supply Chain and Operations Management: A Decision-Oriented Introduction to the Creation of Value, (Springer International Publishing, 2017), pg. 72

[3] Hendriksz, V., “A Closer Look at Primark’s Stance on Responsible Fashion”, FashionUnited, (April 20, 2017), https://fashionunited.uk/primark-sustainability

[4] “Faster, Cheaper Fashion”, The Economist, (September 5, 2015), https://www.economist.com/news/business/21663221-rapidly-rising-super-cheap-irish-clothes-retailer-prepares-conquer-america-rivals-should

[5] “Primark Environmental Performance Report 2017”, Primark, (May 17, 2017), https://www.primark.com/~/media/ourethics/detox/pdfs/detox-report/primark-environmental-performance-report_2017.ashx

[6] “Helping to inform Primark’s long-term ambition to ensure all the cotton in its supply chain is sourced sustainably and addressing some of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, while making a meaningful difference to women cotton farmers and their families”, CottonConnect.org, http://cottonconnect.org/portfolio-posts/primark-sustainable-cotton-case-study/

[7] Sit, S., “Profits rise for Primark’s female cotton farmers”, Cips.org, (February 10, 2017), https://www.cips.org/en/supply-management/news/2017/february/profits-rise-for-female-cotton-farmers-working-with-primark-/

[8] Glennon, R., “The Unfolding Tragedy of Climate Change in Bangladesh”, Scientific American, (April 21, 2017), https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-unfolding-tragedy-of-climate-change-in-bangladesh/

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5 thoughts on “Primark: Hitting the Mark on Addressing Climate Change

  1. Great post and interesting to learn what Primark is doing to address sustainability issues in its supply chain. Given fast-fashion retailers like H&M, Primark, and Zara are under pressure to get products to market quickly and inexpensively to consumers, these companies have tended to be the worst in terms of ensuring products are being made in a sustain way. It is becoming more common for these stores to set up a task force to address sustainability issues, buts its often difficult to integrate new ideas into business processes and enact real change. One change H&M has made is to allow encourage customers to bring old clothes to the store where H&M then handles the recycling. I wonder if the industry could consolidate an only work with distributors and suppliers who maintain high quality standards when it comes to sustainability. Companies in the fishing industry and diamond industry have been somewhat successful in doing so.

  2. Thanks for writing this! I think that It’s interesting to think about what motivates companies to “go green” and whether it’s a PR play, genuine concern for the environment, or fear that by contributing to global warming, they are depleting their own supply.
    I was particularly intrigued by your note on sustainably sourcing cotton and did a bit of research into how cotton supply is being impacted by climate change (good article here: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/why-climate-change-material-cotton-industry). It talks about what some companies are doing to reduce their reliance on raw cotton. Levi, for example, created jeans from recycled T-shirts. And companies like Patagonia and Eileen Fischer are encouraging customers to hang onto clothing longer (consequently reducing sales but potentially increasing CLV?) and providing instructions on how to repair damages. I’m curious to see what the future holds for innovation from Primark and other retailers.

  3. Thank you for the insightful article, Shelby. It prompted me to think of issues in fashion that I rarely consider as a consumer, and you illustrated the challenges Primark is facing in implementing more sustainable operations. You referenced the fact that Primark has understated their sustainability efforts in the media, which prompted me to wonder why they choose not to publicize the changes they are making.

    In theory, a company like Primark could take their sustainability efforts one step further by educating their consumers on their philosophy and urging customers to make purchasing decisions that are best for the environment. This would hopefully create a virtuous cycle in which companies develop and market sustainable operations, customers demand sustainably made clothes and purchase accordingly, and sustainable companies have more capital to invest in sustainability initiatives. The key to setting this pattern in motion is articulating the operational changes to current and potential customers: however, experts note that potentially boring and/or inaccessible messaging alienate an audience (https://sustainability.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/Promoting_Sustain_Behavior_Primer.pdf). Primark could start to educate consumers about their efforts by leveraging their fascinating engagement with CottonConnect, and over time introduce information about more complicated operational changes to their marketing. Hopefully, Primark will continue to pursue sustainable practices in their supply chain, which will transform their supply chain partners and set the tone for industry-wide changes.

  4. Thanks for a great post, @scolby! I agree with @aportland that we rarely think about these issues from the consumer perspective so this was an extremely relevant post.

    Primark’s supply chain issues remind me closely of IKEA’s, specifically in terms of the dual impact of the supply side and the demand side. During the IKEA case, we discussed how the company could dramatically increase consumers’ willingness and ability to recycle by investing in convenient infrastructure. I believe Primark’s focus on soft goods (vs. IKEA’s furniture-heavy business) enables it to establish this infrastructure more easily and cheaply. You mention in your post that Primark has increased waste collection at its retail locations, but I wonder if it could have more of an impact by enabling recycling at a broader variety of locations. This could be an area where partnering with other fashion retailers, particularly fast fashion retailers with similar product lifetimes, would create a meaningful scale benefit: if Zara, H&M, and Primark partnered to create a clothing recycling infrastructure, they could collectively offer many more drop-off points and increased convenience to the consumer. This would in turn increase the availability of recycled materials on the supply side and allow Primark to reduce its reliance on costly raw materials that often have to be transported from distant locations, thereby decreasing the company’s negative impact in secondary ways.

  5. Thanks for the post Shelby! It’s great to hear about companies like Primark that are not usually in the media spotlight for these sorts of issues. You brought up the point that the commitment to sustainability is equally on consumers as it is on company management. I wonder whether Primark could be more explicit about where its products are sourced from – and educate their customers in-store. One company that comes to mind is Eberjay (https://www.eberjey.com/). Although it’s an e-commerce play, the company has made ‘customer education’ on sustainability issues part of its core value proposition, while at the same time, maintaining (relatively) low prices. Perhaps Primark could learn something from them about consumer education and willingness to pay? Transparency in their supply chain may seem risky, but I think consumers would appreciate a move like this from a mass-market brand.

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