Zara’s Quest for Sustainability Reveals the Limits of Fast Fashion

The Zara logo on the facade of a store.
Unsustainability is baked into Zara’s business model. Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images

In the 40-odd years since its inception, the Spanish behemoth Zara has managed to make itself beloved among commoners and royals, celebrities and the rest of us. In its quest to democratize fashion, it’s also earned a reputation for producing a flood of clothes ultimately destined for landfills. In an effort to cast off those pesky questions swirling around the ethics of the company’s environmental impact, Zara, for the first time, released a sustainability plan on Tuesday. According to the plan from Zara’s corporate parent Inditex, Zara’s eco-conscious collection Join Life will account for 20 percent of the company’s offerings by the end of the year. By 2020, the company will eliminate hazardous chemicals from the supply chain, install donation bins in all stores, and eliminate the use of fibers from endangered or ancient forests. The plan also includes benchmark dates for eliminating single-use plastic from packaging and ensuring the use of sustainably sourced cotton and linen. When the goals were announced, Zara heiress Marta Ortega said, “It’s the right thing to do, both morally and commercially, and it’s an approach that we’re absolutely committed to.”

There’s no doubt that for a company of Zara’s size and influence, this plan is definitely a step in the right direction. But it ultimately exposes the limits of the fast fashion industry’s ability to actually be sustainable. Zara, on average, releases 500 new designs a week and 20,000 per year. For most retailers, it takes around 40 weeks to get items out to market. For Zara, it can take as few as one. Wastefulness is an ineradicable feature of any business model predicated on responding to trends that quickly. And the sustainability plan makes no mention of improving the conditions of Zara’s many factory workers. According to Refinery29, “one particular factory in Tunisia, North Africa produces 1,200 pieces per day, 150 pieces per hour”:

Each worker is timed (there is a woman with a stopwatch to make sure things are running smoothly), and it’s called “working to the minute,” which means it should take 38 minutes to finish one shirt; if it takes longer than that, the plant begins to lose money. … Employees who perform well will earn a 45 euro bonus at the end of the year.

The fact that a business that epitomizes all the problems of fast fashion finally responded to critics from within and outside the industry might suggest the strengthening influence of sustainability activists. To me, it suggests that we’re on the edge of environmentalism going the way of corporate feminism. Putting out “eco-friendly” sustainability plans and cutesy campaigns for Earth Day has transformed into a way for brands to signal to younger, more socially conscious consumers that they’re down for the cause. And while Zara’s plan is objectively better than say, a Pepsi commercial full of protest imagery, there’s a fundamental dissonance when a brand that profits off of a business model that is actively harmful to the environment puts out a sustainability plan that doesn’t include a massive overhaul of that model.

Zara is a company that depends on mass trend-based consumption and, as pointed out by the Cut, “the same week Zara made headlines for its sustainability goals, it was also covered in the New York Times for making a $50 viscose dress that proliferated so quickly it warranted its own Instagram account.” While Zara plans to stop sourcing viscose, a semi-synthetic fiber partially made from wood pulp, from endangered forests, the company isn’t stopping the viral spread of its cheaply made clothing anytime soon. Why should it? Sales from Inditex brands were up 7 percent last year, which means yet more clothing rushed through production to consumers—and eventually to landfills, once those shirts that took 38 minutes to make started to fray. Zara is existentially unsustainable. No sustainability plan can change that.