As a fashion brand, Zara has made a name for itself by democratizing the latest clothing styles for consumers at an affordable price. But the rapid pace of that trend-driven business model, known as "fast fashion," can come at high environmental and social costs.
Last week, Zara's parent company, Inditex, announced its plans to grow more sustainable.
The fast-fashion giant pledged that by 2025, all of its eight brands will only use cotton, linen and polyester that's organic, sustainable or recycled, which is 90% of the raw materials its uses. CEO and executive chairman Pablo Isla said that renewable sources will power 80% of the energy consumed by the conglomerate's distribution centers, offices and stores. It also plans to transition to zero landfill waste.
It's a significant step for a company that churns out 500 new designs per week, says Elizabeth L. Cline, the author of two books on the impact of fast fashion.
"What they're doing is they're sourcing materials that do have a better environmental profile," she says. "These are materials that use less water, less energy, less chemicals to produce."
Cline says the move sends a powerful message down the supply chain to manufacturers about being more green.
Still, Cline cautions that the announcement should be taken with a grain of salt, arguing that fast fashion and sustainability are inherently incompatible.
Cline says that even if Zara is using materials that are more ethically sourced or have a lower environmental impact, the vast majority of the carbon footprint of fashion comes from the manufacturers who supply brands with their materials. When a business is built on a fast turnover of styles, making those products still swallows a lot of energy, regardless of whether it's using organic cotton or selling products in more eco-efficient stores.
"The business model will have to change and evolve for them to operate sustainably," she says.
Agriculturally, growing cotton impacts soil health, carbon emissions and water consumption, says Mark Sumner, who lectures on fashion and sustainability at the University of Leeds in England. Polyester, a popular and cheap synthetic material in fast fashion, requires the oil industry's extraction and refinement of petroleum, processes known to fuel climate change. Then there's the energy-intensive processes of converting that raw material into wearable garments. Dying the fabric can also introduce harmful chemicals.
"When we add up all of those different impacts we then start to get to see a picture of those environmental issues associated with clothing," he says.
What complicates things even more, says Sumner, is that depending on who you ask, the definition of sustainability can vary.
"The fashion industry isn't actually just one industry, it's a whole raft of other industries that are used and exploited to deliver the garments that we're wearing now," he says in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered.
Which is why Cline thinks any excitement over Inditex's announcement needs to be tempered.
"They're acting overly confident about a subject that we're still figuring out," she says. "We are still gathering data. We are still figuring out best practices. So for Zara to kind of come out of the gate and say we're going to be sustainable by 2025 belies the long road ahead of us that we have on sustainability and fashion."
Inditex is committing $3.5 million to researching textile recycling technology under a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an investment Cline supports.
At the same time, Cline says it can't be up to the fast-fashion industry alone. Consumers and government regulators have a role to play too.
Inditex's announcement is a response to consumer pressure, Cline says. "We're in the midst of a consumer-led revolution in fashion sustainability."
Unfortunately, she says, a big part of that movement is tilted toward greenwashing — a term that refers to a deceptive marketing ploy in which companies spend more effort on its eco-consciousness image than actually being eco-conscious.
The fact that Zara's parent company has gone public with its sustainability targets is a good sign, Sumner says.
"Over time, they'll be held accountable by their shareholders, by NGOs, by media by commentators," he says. "Hopefully, what they will do is also encourage other brands and retailers to be bold and to make these statements as well."
NPR's Leena Sanzgiri and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited the audio of this story.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Spanish retailer Zara announced it will only use sustainable materials by the year 2025. This is a big deal because Zara is the giant in the fast fashion space. It's a retail category that's ballooned in the United States in the last two decades. And the concept is in the name - fashionable clothing made quickly and sold at affordable prices. It's allowed brands like Zara to move inventory at a rapid pace. But that kind of turnaround can have a negative impact on the environment.
Here to tell us more about the decision is Mark Sumner. He lectures on fashion and sustainability at the University of Leeds in the U.K. And he worked in the retail industry for over 15 years. Welcome to the program.
MARK SUMNER: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.
MCCAMMON: So let's set the table quickly. When people think about environmental hazards, they often talk about things like car emissions or maybe plastics in the ocean. They may not be thinking though about what is in their closet. How is fast fashion harmful to the environment?
SUMNER: Well, the fashion industry encompasses a whole range of other industries to provide us with the clothing that we're wearing. The industries that we need to create those materials are things like agriculture. We need agriculture to grow cotton. That has impacts to do with soil health and carbon emissions and water consumption. Polyester comes from the oil industry. We have, obviously, issues associated with the extraction of oil. And then to convert those fibers, that raw material, into the garments you're wearing, we have energy-intensive processes such as yarn spinning, turning that fiber into yarn.
And a really important part of the fashion industry is about color. And to apply color to fabrics, we're using water, we're using energy, and sometimes we're using potentially quite harmful chemicals. And then, ultimately, that fabric is then sent to the garment factories to turn it into the garments that we're wearing. And when we add up all of those different impacts, we then start to see a picture of those environmental issues associated with clothing.
MCCAMMON: And let's talk a bit about Zara's announcement. What does it mean, first of all, for materials used in fashion to be sustainable?
SUMNER: It's a really complex area. And depending on who you talk to, the definition of what sustainable means will vary. We're talking about carbon emissions, we're talking about water consumption, water pollution, eutrophication, ozone depletion. And sometimes you can reduce one particular environmental impact and, at the same time, by the actions you've taken, you're actually increasing the impact somewhere else. The challenge for the fashion industry, because it's so diverse and so broad, is that there are so many different aspects of sustainability that are trying to be addressed.
Some brands will talk about it in a very inclusive way and talk about many, many different areas of sustainability. Other brands will be talking about sustainability and maybe only reference one aspect, and that might be carbon, for example. So the idea of having something sustainable is really ambiguous, and that's one of the challenges, I think, for consumers and commentators when they're trying to look at the statements being made by brands like Zara. You know, what does that actually mean?
MCCAMMON: Depending on how they go about it, how big of a deal could this announcement by Zara be, and what kind of an impact could it have?
SUMNER: Well, I think the really interesting thing about Zara's statement is they've made a public statement to back their intention, and they will be held accountable for whether they achieve that target or not over time. So the fact that they made this very public target I think is really positive. And I think hopefully what that will do is also encourage other brands and retailers to be bold and to make these statements as well.
MCCAMMON: What individual responsibility do consumers have here?
SUMNER: Personally, I think every consumer has some responsibility for their actions. The consumers are buying products, they are making decisions about where they're buying those products from, how long they keep those products for and what they do with those products at end of life. So I think there is definitely some responsibility that the consumers have in all of this. But I also recognize as - there is this deep-seated sort of psychological driver within our human psyche to engage in fashion.
And, of course, at the same time, we have this culture of consumption, which, for an individual to try and rebel against that, is really, really difficult to do. So I recognize the fact that consumers have a responsibility but also recognize the fact that there are some powerful factors that are influencing the way that consumers behave.
MCCAMMON: That's Mark Sumner of the University of Leeds. Thank you so much for joining us.
SUMNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.