Inditex Group, the parent company of fast fashion retailer Zara, is the highest-selling apparel retailer in the world, with more than $31 billion in revenue in 2021 alone.
The secret of its success lies in its ability to churn out new collections in just 15 days, a model that, while great for fashionistas, is detrimental for the environment. Fast fashion generates greenhouse gasses, uses a heck of a lot of water, dumps plastic microfibers into oceans and populates landfills.
This has led to widely reported tension between Gen Z’s love of new clothing trends and its concerns about climate change, impacting how fast fashion retailers can appeal to this young consumer group.
Take Zara, for example
The fast fashion giant launched its first eco-friendly fashion line, #JoinLife, in 2016. In a video about the program, the retailer said it is constantly looking to improve its processes and find better materials. It also mentioned a goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2040.
In Inditex’s 2022 annual report, Zara’s parent noted it was on track to achieve all of its sustainability commitments, including using 100% renewable energy for the electricity in its facilities.
These efforts didn’t stop Zara from being one of five fast fashion retailers called out by Earth.org for greenwashing in August 2022. The environmental site noted Zara’s sustainability efforts are nowhere near enough to counter its high-carbon business model.
Since then, Zara has made some more recent attempts to go green — or at least, greener.
In November 2022, Zara debuted its Pre-Owned Initiative, a resale platform available in the U.K. — with plans to roll out in France and Germany — in an effort to help customers donate, repair or resell their Zara garments.
According to Jessica Kats, e-commerce and retail expert at online marketplace Soxy, resale has become a clever way for Zara to balance profits with sustainability.
The program, adopted by other retailers as well, “suggests a larger trend among fashion brands to adopt environmentally friendly practices,” Madison Testa, business development manager at the digital agency Digital Caterpillar, agreed.
“By encouraging customers to extend the life cycle of their products through resale or donation, these initiatives aim to reduce waste and contribute to a more sustainable fashion sector,” she said.
The resale platform also helps Zara stay connected to customers and promote a sense of community, said Paul Martinez, founder of e-commerce media site EcomSidekick.
Is it enough?
But insiders remain skeptical that these efforts will actually make fast fashion sustainable on their own, without more profound change.
“Zara can be deceiving because of the higher price point when compared to other notable fast fashion companies,” Amanda Manera, founder of resale site The Resale Doctor told Campaign US. “However, the practice of mass-producing trendy items with a lack of sustainability is unfortunately still fast fashion.”
Despite upticks in reselling programs – projections show the space is expected to nearly double by 2027 to $350 billion – shoppers still quickly cycle through clothing in search of the next latest trend. This is why other fast fashion brands like Shein, Boohoo and Fashion Nova are filling up thrift stores as well, she said.
“This, unfortunately, will not make the sector more environmentally friendly,” Manera added. “The vast majority of items end up in the landfill [or are] incinerated or shipped overseas to be someone else's problem.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 85% of textiles were either burned or sent to landfills in 2018.
As a result, Elisa Bender, co-founder of e-commerce guide RevenueGeek, has even less faith in resale efforts.
“It won't work at all,” she told Campaign US. “The root cause, wasteful production, will still be there.”
Testa added that the long-term success of these programs hinges on factors like scalability, customer engagement and a collective industry commitment.
Indeed, Martinez said fast fashion still has to tackle overproduction, excessive consumption, and unsustainable sourcing practices. That includes investing in quality materials, designing durable products, implementing recycling programs and exploring innovative manufacturing techniques.
“Transparency and ethical practices throughout the supply chain are also crucial for ensuring the long-term success of sustainability initiatives,” he added
A 2012 New York Times story on Zara’s rise to prominence noted the retailer does no advertising, so it’s hard to tell what comes next for the fast fashion retailer.
Zara did not respond to Campaign US’ request for comment.