But can fast fashion ever be green? Fabrics are easier to change than business models.
At its annual general meeting last week, Inditex, owner of fast fashion brand Zara, announced that most of its fabrics will be sustainably produced by 2025. CEO Pablo Isla said that "100 percent of the cotton, linen and polyester used by all eight of its brands will be organic, sustainable or recycled" and that all viscose will be sustainably produced by 2023. Cotton, linen, polyester, and viscose combined make up 90 percent of the fabrics used by Inditex.
Isla went on to state that "sustainability is a never-ending task in which everyone here at Inditex is involved and in which we are successfully engaging all of our suppliers; we aspire to playing a transformational role in the industry."The AGM report highlighted other eco-friendly initiatives that the company has embraced in recent years, including partnering with researchers at MIT to figure out way of recycling clothing fabrics and launching a clothing collection program that, to date, has distributed 34,000 pounds of used garments. (Since this program is a partnership with the Red Cross and other charities, it's a safe assumption that many of these clothes are going to developing nations, which isn't necessarily a benefit to them – perhaps more a convenient disposal method for the company?)
While some are praising Inditex's forward-looking announcement, others – like myself – are less impressed. I am of the opinion that, no matter how 'sustainably produced' their fabrics may be, it's impossible for Inditex and Zara ever to call themselves sustainable because the entire business model is at odds with sustainability.
As I wrote in a recent article about H&M Conscious Collection being challenged by the Norwegian government, sustainability is defined as "the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance"; and yet, we're talking about a company that churns out new lines of shoddily-constructed clothing on a biweekly basis. Its pieces are sold at such low prices that one thinks nothing of throwing away a shirt that no longer holds its shape or has a tough stain on it.
I'm not the only one who feels this way. Nineteen-year-old fashion blogger Tolmeia Gregory told the Guardian in another recent article on the topic of plastic in clothing,
"The big issue I struggle with is that, yes, we can push for brands to become more sustainable, but as long as they’re churning out millions of garments a year, we’re not going to change anything."
And yet, Isla has challenged this in the past, saying that, despite the brand's presence on every main shopping street, it is "the opposite" of a fast fashion model: "We operate with a different model. We make our own patterns, work with our own factories, keep low levels of inventory, have local sourcing and manufacturing and don’t have promotions in stores."
There's a kernel of truth to what he says. A 2010 investigation into how Zara operates found that, while most apparel retailers order the bulk of their pieces six months in advance, guessing at what the trends will be, Zara only off-shores 15 percent of its production and limits that to basic styles. The remaining 85 percent is produced closer to home, in or near Europe, which allows for rapid style changes. As reported in Slate, "The turnaround time is miraculous: as short as two weeks from an idea in a designer’s head to a garment on a Zara store’s shelf."
This does mean garment workers are paid a higher wage in Europe than in Asia, but the downside is perhaps more environmental – fuelling rampant consumption of fleeting trends, as opposed to investing in quality built to last.
While I'm all about brands getting greener, I can't hold back an eyeroll at the thought of Zara jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, too. I don't think it'll fly. Shoppers are getting savvy, and even governments aren't swallowing the greenwashing quite so readily, as Norway has recently indicated.
What we need is not the same glut of cheap clothing made with slightly 'greener' fabrics. What we need is to rethink the way we dress ourselves, opting for second-hand, higher quality, and even higher prices (when those reflect good and ethical construction, rather than a trendy brand name). Clothing should become, once again, a long-term investment, and that is the antithesis of everything Zara and its fast fashion cronies represent.