Last Updated on April 12, 2023
Zara may be one of the biggest retailers on the planet, but how sustainable is it, and does it use ethical practises?
The fashion brand, which is owned by Inditex, has almost 3,000 stores in 96 countries, with new stock arriving every week to keep consumers coming back for more.
Everyone from celebrities Alexa Chung and Rosie Huntington-Whitely counts themselves fans of the brand, so it’s not surprising that Zara was valued at almost £14 billion in 2022.
Despite the retailer’s profits suffering from the effects of the pandemic in 2020, it still appears to be reigning supreme when it comes to the high street.
Here, we take a look at the brand’s ethics, sustainability and position on animal welfare.
Is Zara sustainable?
Zara recently published a sustainability manifesto on its website under the slogan, ‘Working towards sustainability.’
This manifesto highlights what work Zara has been putting in to become more sustainable in 2020, including:
- The number of products carrying the Join Life label reached more than 35% of the total, surpassing the initial goal of 25% set for the year. These garments are produced using processes and raw materials that help to reduce Zara’s impact, such as organic cotton, TENCEL™ or recycled polyester.
- 100% in-store clothing collection. Zara is working on a clothes collection programme to give used garments a second life, whereby clothes collected are donated to non-profit organisations which help to reuse or recycle the garments.
- 100% eco-efficient stores. The daily operation of Zara’s stores is ‘adapted to reduce our environmental impact with systems that allow us to adjust water and energy consumption to the real needs of the store.’
- 100% training in circular design. As part of Zara’s commitment to the Global Fashion Agenda, all design teams have undergone specific training programmes on raw materials and processes that help to promote textile recycling.
- CanopyStyle commitment to protecting the rainforest. Zara says they have worked with suppliers on the actions needed so they can use fibres, such as modal and viscose, that pose no risk to endangered forests. This commitment is in line with CanopyStyle, an initiative developed by the NGO Canopy that aims to protect forests and of which INDITEX is a founding member.
It also highlights their goals in the future for 2023, 2025 and 2040. You can read it in full here.
The brand releases an incredible 24 trend-led collections every year, 500 designs a week and almost 20,000 per year, which in turn leads consumers to see their clothes as disposable and adds to even more waste from the garment industry that ends up in a landfill.
However, it was reported that the brand had suffered a 44% slump in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zara announced it was closing 1,200 of its stores around the world, thus reducing energy consumption – albeit out of necessity, not a choice.
Of course, Zara’s fast fashion business model can never be environmentally friendly as manufacturing so many new garments create huge amounts of waste every year.
However, Inditex, the company that owns Zara, pledged to create all of its collections from 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025.
Inditex, which also owns brands Massimo Dutti, Pull and Bear, Bershka and Stradivarius, also started a repair and reuse program called Closing The Loop in 2016, which allows shoppers to drop off used garments in-store or through the post to be recycled, while their packaging is also recycled.
Dow Jones named the fashion group as the most sustainable retailer from 2016 to 2018, and Zara also launched their Join Life range in 2016, which is made using recycled materials.
But despite the well-meaning steps, Zara has been criticised for failing to catch up with other brands. Their Join Life range accounts for such a small percentage of their collections that it fails to have much of an impact on the brand as a whole, and as such a large company, many feel there’s no excuse.
Zara’s transparency has also been called into question, as they fail to disclose the number of resources that go into production.
The brand, along with over 100 others, has also been linked to Amazon Deforestation. According to Slow Factory, ‘none of these brands are deliberately choosing deforestation leather’ but they do continue to work with manufacturers that source their materials from opaque supply chains.
You can learn more about the fashion brands that have indirectly contributed to Amazon deforestation and what you can do about it here.
The brand’s efforts to be transparent in its sustainability practices have also been questioned. A study of the top fast-fashion websites in the UK done last year reportedly revealed that 60% of environmental claims in these sites, including Zara’s, could be considered ‘misleading’.
Changing Markets Foundation said that many of these brands use the words ‘sustainable’, ‘low-impact’, ‘eco’, and ‘recycled’ but 59% of them do not live up to the Competition and Market Authority’s (CMA) guidelines on avoiding greenwashing — the list was topped by H&M but also included Zara.
Is Zara ethical?
It’s important to note the working conditions and wages of Zara’s staff.
Who can forget their unpaid factory workers from Turkey, who said they were left with ‘no choice’ but to sew hidden messages into clothing for customers to find?
They were hired by manufacturer Bravo Tekstil, who produced clothes for Zara, before closing down in 2016.
Unfortunately the garment workers did not get paid for the three months up to the company’s closure, until Inditex worked with a trade union and other retailers including Mango and Next to establish a ‘hardship fund’ to help the group of Turkish workers.
Since the bad publicity, Zara have started to improve the working conditions of their workers.
They have a code of conduct that protects workers, and audits take place to ensure this is enforced. Zara also publish a list of suppliers, information of supplier audits and on gender equality, forced labour and freedom of association.
However, Zara still fails to pay a living wage across its supply chain – despite such a huge profit margin.
They also fail to disclose evidence that their well-being programs are present at half of their factories, which suggests many workers are left unsupported.
In 2020, over 100 workers lost their jobs at the Huabo Times factory in Myanmar, which produces clothes for Zara, after forming a union. One worker claimed that they worked 10-hour days, six days a week and were regularly expected to work overtime to make enough money. Workers at the factory make around $3 per day, or £2.44.
Meanwhile, the founder of Inditex, Don Amancio Ortega, is the sixth wealthiest person in the world, with a net worth of over £59 billion.
As for the COVID-19 pandemic, Zara discloses policies in place to protect workers and suppliers in its supply chain from the impacts of Covid-19. In August 2020, it was reported that Inditex had pledged to maintain workers’ rights throughout their supply chains and the stability of payments to suppliers during the crisis.
The group had previously signed a joint agreement with global workers’ union IndustriALL, and during the pandemic, they reiterated their commitment to ensuring health and safety standards were met, and bargaining rights and workers’ rights to unionise were maintained throughout their supply chains.
Zara also committed to stable payment terms to allow suppliers to honour payments to their workers, ensuring they didn’t lose wages during the pandemic like certain fast fashion retailers’ employees did, such as those for Arcadia.
Zara Animal Welfare Policy
Zara uses wool, leather, down, and exotic animal hair, but their Animal Welfare Policy does ban fur, angora and animal testing in their clothing products.
Unfortunately Zara provide no evidence it traces any animal products to the first stage of production.
Is Zara the same as Shein?
According to the sustainable fashion index, Good On You, Zara’s green and sustainable efforts are not yet good enough. But compared to Shein, Zara has taken steps in creating good supply chain management through their Closing The Loop program.
Shein also received the lowest possible score Good On You has ever given a brand—avoid at all costs.
Like many high-street fashion brands, Zara are working towards becoming more sustainable and ethical – but there’s still a long way to go.
Working at such a huge scale, it seems impossible for the much-loved brand to ever be truly environmentally-friendly, but they could run an ethical business by paying their staff fairly and treating them with respect.
Despite Zara perhaps being the most popular fast fashion chain in the world, it could also lose its gleam by not thinking sustainably.
Topshop, which was previously part of the Arcadia group and has since been taken over by ASOS, went into administration last year and many were quick to pull apart its lack of ethical and sustainable practises, high price point and failure to innovate for reasons why it went bust. Shoppers are now more savvy than ever before.
Wear Next Opinion
Wear Next believes it’s important to highlight the negative and unjust practises taking place in the fashion industry. We believe ethics and sustainability are an important talking point to bring about change and we encourage you to contact fashion brands to demand this.
However, we understand that sustainable fashion isn’t accessible to everybody due to various factors, such as budget and the ability to find confidence-boosting clothes that fit. We will continue to offer you fashion inspiration and guidance to suit everybody and their budget, while also highlighting the unjust systems at play in the fashion industry.
We encourage our readers to shop mindfully and purposefully, ditching impulse purchases as a way to start shopping sustainably. If you want to learn more about fast fashion, we recommend books from this reading list.
Would you still shop at Zara? Let us know in the comments below.
Sustainable alternatives to Zara
In the past sustainable fashion was synonymous with bamboo, beige and basic garments, but recently slow fashion has started to change.
There are plenty of exciting small fashion brands that don’t compromise on style. If you like Zara, we recommend checking out these made-to-order fashion brands.
By Megan Crosby
By Megan Crosby is a small fashion brand by – you guessed it – Megan Crosby.
She designs and hand makes a selection of colourful, playful and beautiful clothes.
With Love Evie
With Love Evie might be a lesser-known sustainable label, but it’s growing quickly.
Like Megan Crosby, Evie Ashwin designs and hand makes a selection of dresses, tops and trousers in her recognisable heart-printed ginghams and florals.
Molby The Label
Molby The Label boasts a whole host of celebrity fans, from Louise Thompson, to Holly Willoughby.
Her recognisable split-colour gingham Tilda dresses are instantly recognisable.
Omnes is a sustainable fashion label with flare, offering style-led sustainable pieces designed in London.
The brand works with a select few fabric producers, ensuring their products as sustainable as possible.
Shop at omnes.com
You can see more small businesses that hand make pieces to order here.