Primark - Sustainable Cotton Programme

The Unilever Global Development Award, supported by Business Fights Poverty, Finalist, 2016

As part of Primark's aim to use only sustainably produced cotton the company is training farmers in India to adopt more sustainable methods, enabling them to increase their income while reducing fertiliser and pesticide use.

Good for society

  • Primark provided training to 1,251 female smallholder farmers about sustainable farming methods, and the farmers reduced their fertiliser usage by more than 10%, their pesticide usage by 50% and water usage by 27%.
  • The training helped the smallholders to improve their livelihoods, increasing income by 176% in year one and 211% in year two.

Good for business

  • The training programme is helping Primark to achieve its long term ambition of ensuring all of the cotton in its supply chain is sourced sustainably.
  • The programme also provided Primark with valuable insights into the cotton supply chain, and directly into the lives of the smallholder cotton farmers.

Primark - Sustainable Cotton Programme

Overview

Cotton is typically grown in low-income countries on small farms, where knowledge of environmentally friendly practices and the benefits they can bring is limited. In many places there is also a gender equality gap, and women smallholders are a minority group with little or no access to training.

Primark has partnered with agricultural experts, CottonConnect, and the Self-Employed Women’s Association to train female smallholder farmers in India to produce more environmentally sustainable, higher quality cotton.  Through classroom sessions, in-field training, and learning groups, farmers are trained on the most appropriate techniques for their land. Subjects covered range from seed selection, sowing, soil, water, pesticide and pest management, to picking, fibre quality, grading and storage of the harvested cotton. The training also covers health and safety and working conditions. 

The training has helped the farmers to increase their yields, improve the quality of their cotton, reduce the environmental impact of their farms and ultimately grow their livelihoods. The farmers' income increased by 176% in year one of the programme, and by 211% in year two. For many households these women are now the main breadwinners and they have used their increased profits to support their families, educate their children or improve their housing and lifestyle.

The programme also gives Primark a valuable insight into the cotton supply chain, and directly into the lives of the smallholder cotton farmers. It has been so successful that Primark has extended the programme for another six years.  It will train 10,000 more female smallholder farmers, and provide additional business skills training to those already trained. 

Partnering with on-the-ground experts

Primark recognised that to have maximum impact the programme needed to be delivered by experts on the ground with the local knowledge and expertise to engage smallholders and their families. 

Primark used its business relationships to bring together agricultural experts, CottonConnect, and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). Dedicated CottonConnect and SEWA field teams are based permanently on the ground to implement the programme. This means they are able to recruit staff from nearby villages who have an essential understanding of the concerns and priorities of farmers. Local teams are also best placed to continually evaluate and measure the impact of the programme. 

Understanding target groups

Critical to the success of the project was leveraging SEWA’s female members and existing relationships with the local community. In a traditional, patriarchal society it was important to gain the support of male family members and elders for women to be able to participate in the programme. SEWA’s relationships within these communities allowed the company to organise village level meetings to engage men, and invite men to training sessions.

Primark, SEWA and CottonConnect are in regular contact through project meetings, phone calls and emails, as well as formal quarterly meetings to discuss how the programme is developing, working together to find solutions when challenges arise. 

What Primark's Chief Executive said:

“In just three years the results have exceeded our expectations and we’ll extend the partnership to reach a further 10,000 smallholders, on top of the 1,251 already reached”.  - Paul Marchant, Chief Executive, Primark