One of the biggest players in fast fashion says it is taking important steps towards a more sustainable business model. But in an industry built on low cost, low quality and high volume production, experts say it won’t be easy.
“It’s hard to see how they actually meet their emissions reduction targets,” said Ken Pucker, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School in Medford, Massachusetts, who focuses on sustainability.
“Because the volumes are going to keep going up.”
In an ambitious new plan, Inditex, Zara’s parent company, announced earlier this month that it will seek to cut its emissions in half by 2030 and become net zero by 2040. It also says it will transition to using materials that last longer and are easier to recycle.
Experts say the move signals a shift towards a circular business model, meaning materials are reused and regenerated rather than thrown away, as the fashion industry faces increasing criticism for its huge environmental footprint.
In 2021, the world economic forum identified the fashion industry as the third largest polluter in the world. And as the trend cycle accelerates, most clothes bought are only worn seven times before being thrown away, according to a 2015 British study.
In its new plan, Zara says 40 percent of the company’s fibers will come from recycled material, 25 percent from sustainably grown crops and another 25 percent from “next-generation materials” that Inditex is investing in.
The big problem, experts say, is that the company shows no signs of slowing production, raising questions about how realistic these targets are.
“To get to your goals, all of these things have to happen yesterday. And I’m concerned that there’s not enough financial incentive or time to compromise your ability to meet your goals,” Pucker said.
The fast fashion industry is expanding. Companies like Shein and Fashion Nova, for example, have gained huge popularity through social media, where Shein has 29.6 million followers on Instagram and people regularly post their fashion purchases on TikTok.
For fast fashion, the need to continually produce and grow presents a paradox, said Shivika Sinha, founder of US-based sustainable style service Veneka.
“The paradox is that Zara is one of the creators of the fast fashion model,” Sinha said. “It’s going to be difficult for them to implement.”
Still, Sinha said he believes Zara’s goals are achievable.
“There is enough innovation in recycling for Zara to achieve these goals… I think it’s a question of Zara’s culture and where they prioritize their funding for these types of projects, and how the EU holds them accountable.”
Motivate companies to do less
Zara’s new accelerated targets come as the European Commission is drawing up a series of new regulations that will require fashion companies to produce clothing in a more sustainable way and take responsibility for their environmental impacts.
The Commission proposes to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for textiles in all EU member states, making producers responsible for the full life cycle of their products. Once implemented, producers would be responsible for the cost of managing their textile waste.
According to the European Environment Agency, in 2019, 46 percent of used textiles from Europe ended up in African countries. The agency says that what is unfit for reuse often ends up in open landfills and informal waste streams.
The idea behind the EPR schemes is to encourage companies to make fewer garments, said Kelly Drennan, executive director of Fashion Takes Action, a nonprofit organization in Toronto.
“The more garments they make, the higher the cost of managing end-of-life. So if they can really slow down production, make less, then that will save them money in the end,” he said.
Drennan says he is hopeful about the impact that Europe’s EPR rules could have in Canada.
“Ultimately, we’ll benefit from seeing clothing made from more sustainably sourced materials, that are more durable, that take end-of-life into account at the time it’s designed. And hopefully we’ll see less waste as a result.”
Is Canada falling behind?
In Canada, there are no specific EPR programs for textiles, Drennan said. That’s because much of our waste is managed at the provincial or municipal level, with little harmonization between provinces.
Drennan estimates that it will take approximately 10 years before Canada develops a textile EPR scheme for its own textile companies. Canadians throw away nearly 500 million kilograms of cloth items each year, according to researchers at the University of Waterloo.
Without proper legislation, it’s up to companies to take the lead, Drennan said, noting that policies like those in Europe are the only way the industry will achieve meaningful change.
“While there are some leaders who invest time, money and research into sustainability, circularity and human rights initiatives, most brands do not. And it will take legislation for them to start thinking differently.”
But even as fast fashion companies like Zara try to reduce their ecological footprint, Drennan anticipates an even bigger challenge for the industry: ultra-fast fashion.
“Historically, they (Zara, H&M) are the king and queen of fast fashion,” he said.
“The challenging aspect we are facing right now is a new era of fast fashion, or what we call ultra-fast fashion, with brands like Shein and Fashion Nova and Boohoo releasing thousands of styles every day. We are hopeful that the EPR legislation will impact those brands in the future.”