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 . 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” .
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 . 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 .
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:
- Full traceability of the product supply chain
- Environmental, health and safety compliance in all direct and indirect operations
- Improved environmental performance of products and raw materials 
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 . 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” . 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 .
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) . 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 .
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” . In 2013, it began a 3-year engagement with CottonConnect to empower rural women in India to adopt more sustainable cotton farming practices . 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 .
… 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 . 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.
 “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
 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
 Hendriksz, V., “A Closer Look at Primark’s Stance on Responsible Fashion”, FashionUnited, (April 20, 2017), https://fashionunited.uk/primark-sustainability
 “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
 “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
 “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/
 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-/
 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/