Around 6,000 women have participated in the cotton programme so far

Around 6,000 women have participated in the cotton programme so far

Primark is this week launching its first line of clothing made using 100% sustainable cotton – marking a first for the British value clothing retailer in being able to track its cotton through the supply chain from farm to store.

The range of 16 different women's pyjama styles, one of Primark's best selling product lines, is made using cotton sourced directly from female farmers participating in the retailer's Sustainable Cotton Programme in India.

The project, set up around five years ago in traditionally male-dominated farming communities, has combined the expertise of agricultural expert CottonConnect and the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) to bring about lasting, sustainable change for female farmers. It offers on-the-ground training sessions and in-field training on farming techniques, seed selection, sowing, soil, water, pesticide management, picking, fibre quality, grading and storage.

With the ultimate aim of ensuring all the cotton in its products is sourced sustainably, Primark says the move means it is now able to track its sustainable cotton right through the supply chain.

Until now, only a "small percentage" of the cotton produced by the programme has made its way into Primark's clothing.

While Primark declined to specify how this has improved with the launch of the sustainable pyjama line, a spokesperson told just-style: "With one in three women's pyjamas bought in the UK coming from Primark, this is a significant high volume product line for us."

The retailer says there will be no change in the price of the sustainable pyjamas against Primark's regular cotton pyjamas, which sell at GBP6 (US$7.78).

"Our long-term ambition is to ensure that all the cotton we use is sustainably sourced," says Katharine Stewart, ethical trade and environmental sustainability director for Primark. "There has never been a single definition of sustainable cotton. For us, sustainable cotton is about reducing the environmental impact of cotton production, improving the livelihoods of the farmers, and doing so in a way that means we continue to deliver great value to our customers.

"There has been a concerted effort in countries including India to support the livelihoods of those working on the land. Like other retailers we rely on cotton farmers working in rural India to produce our most important fibre for our suppliers. But with large amounts of cotton grown on small farms, it can be difficult to track through the supply chain. We wanted to learn more about sustainable cotton production and deliberately targeted a region that was used by our suppliers. It's a first step towards achieving our long-term goal, but a significant one."

Around 6,000 women have participated in the programme so far, with around 10,000 due to take part over the next six years. The first intake of female farmers has also received additional training through the Farmer Business School on how to manage input costs, book-keeping, and how to buy and sell cotton.

In the third year of the programme, the 1,251 farmers in the first intake saw an average profit increase of 247%. This compares to a group of 50 control farmers who are representative of the general cotton industry in Gujarat. Chemical pesticide use is down by an average of 44%, while chemical fertiliser use is down by 40%. Water use has fallen by 10%, while input costs are 19.2% lower.

Steve Lawton, trading director at Primark, says the retailer chose one of its key product lines to show it is serious about bringing sustainable cotton into the business.

"We feel strongly that our shoppers shouldn't pay more for sustainable cotton. We will expand the options over the coming months."

just-style travelled to northern India with Primark earlier this year to see how the sustainable cotton programme is taking shape:

Primark challenges critics with India cotton initiative