Fast-fashion giant Zara, and its parent company Inditex, have taken a proactive initial stance on the issue of sustainability and climate change. The Zara brand has acknowledged its role, as a retailer, in promoting the drivers of climate change, and has begun pushing for enhanced sustainability in its operational strategy to mitigate this damage, both to the environment and its brand.
Retailers in the fast-fashion space produce stylish and deliberately ephemeral designs at accessible price-points. The fast-fashion trend has exploded in the past ten years, via a combination of ever-decreasing costs of production and cheaper material sourcing. The plethora of inexpensive designs produced by brands like Zara and competitors H&M and Forever21 allow consumers, particularly younger females, to impulsively purchase new clothing as often as weekly [x]. Production of disposable fashion on such a vast scale has historically been characterized by the importance of speed, affordability and newness rather than environmental responsibility [x]. Globally, the broader apparel industry drives around 10% of carbon emissions; it’s also the second highest industrial polluter [ix]. Fast fashion, specifically, drives a disproportionate share of this impact, both due to scale of volume and product life cycle. Fast fashions, held on average for 35 days, are worn fewer than five times during their product lifetime. As such, each fast-fashion garment generates 400% more carbon emissions per year than a regular article of clothing, typically retained and worn for ten times as long [ix].
To address fast fashion’s significant environmental footprint Inditex and Zara have taken action. Their current strategy involves the following key avenues of sustainability: products, suppliers, and environmental impact [vii]. From using certified organic cotton in certain collections and leveraging recycled materials in others, conducting agricultural education on sustainable ecological farming techniques, to collaborating on specialized seed bank development, Inditex has begun to consider how the raw materials funneled into its products can promote environmental consciousness [v]. In 2014, Inditex brought 34 million articles containing 100% organic cotton to market, and through the Better Cotton Initiative, helped to train growers on methods that use less water and fewer pesticides [v]. The company also advocates for sustainable forest management related to the production of synthetic materials such as viscose or modal, used heavily in manufacturing its products [v]. Within its extensive supply chain, Inditex partners with 1,725 suppliers and 6,298 factories in over 50 countries; each one is held to the same stringent standards of environmental responsibility by the company [vi].
From an impact perspective, Inditex considers key environmental indicators to gauge performance on the sustainability front, and has taken critical steps to improve the eco-efficiency of its stores and to minimize the impact of its manufacturing program [ii]. Inditex has developed a strategic water management framework, for both manufacturing and in-store activities, including a pledge to get to a discharge of zero “undesired chemical substances” within the next four years [iv]. Similarly, by 2020 Inditex has pledged to reduce the amount of energy consumed by its aggregate operations by 15%, and to reduce energy use in its brick-and-mortar retail locations by 10% [iii]. Already, the company has rolled out an eco-efficient store concept that relies on innovative techniques to use fewer resources. Store lighting is dimmed by 80% until motion detectors sense customers’ presence, speed-controlled escalators automatically increase their pace when customers board, and HVAC systems adjust temperatures dynamically based on current store occupancy and relative prevalence of sunlight in different locations [i]. Plastic shopping bags are oxo-biodegradeable, security sensors and plastic hangers are re-used whenever possible, and cardboard boxes for clothing deliveries are shipped up to six times, back-and-forth within the company, before they are finally recycled [i].
Each Inditex distribution center is designed and managed with sustainability in mind. Every center has “ISO 14001 certified environmental management systems” and employees undergo mandated environmental education and training [viii]. Any incremental centers built by Inditex are designed to meet the standards of the US Green Building Council’s “LEED Gold” certification, and the company has been retroactively updating existing centers via the addition of energy-efficient lighting, insulation and more advanced climate control systems [viii]. To get from point A to B within these large centers, employees ride bicycles around the floor [viii].
While Zara and Inditex’s initial efforts to mitigate the harmful effects of fast fashion on the environment are a positive step, I remain skeptical that these actions meaningfully offset the detrimental impact of their overall business model. I hope to see the company’s sustainability strategy, particularly as it relates to supply chain and raw materials, evolve over time to a more transparent and quantifiable state. If the company declared use of sustainably sourced fabrics and raw materials across all fashion campaigns rather than just select collections, such decisive action would demonstrate true commitment to working to prevent further climate change.
Word Count: 795
i. Inditex, “Eco-Efficient Stores,” https://www.inditex.com/en/sustainability/environment/ecoefficient_stores#panel_3, accessed November 2016.
ii. Inditex, “Environmental Management,” https://www.inditex.com/en/sustainability/environment, accessed November 2016.
iii. Inditex, “Global Energy Strategy,” https://www.inditex.com/en/sustainability/environment/energy, accessed November 2016.
iv. Inditex, “Global Water Management Strategy,” https://www.inditex.com/en/sustainability/environment/water, accessed November 2016.
v. Inditex, “Raw Materials,” https://www.inditex.com/en/sustainability/product/raw_materials, accessed November 2016.
vi. Inditex, “Suppliers,” https://www.inditex.com/en/sustainability/suppliers, accessed November 2016
vii. Inditex, “Sustainability,” https://www.inditex.com/en/sustainability, accessed November 2016.
viii. Inditex, “Sustainable Logistics,” https://www.inditex.com/en/sustainability/environment/logistics, accessed November 2016.
xi. James Conca, “Making Climate Change Fashionable – The Garment Industry Takes on Global Warming,” Forbes, December 3, 2015, [http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/12/03/making-climate-change-fashionable-the-garment-industry-takes-on-global-warming/#7da2d15c778a], accessed November 3, 2016.
x. McNeill, L. & Moore, R. 2015, “Sustainable fashion consumption and the fast fashion conundrum: fashionable consumers and attitudes to sustainability in clothing choice”, International Journal of Consumer Studies, 39, no. 3, pp. 212-222.