Is Zara ethical and sustainable?

Is Inditex's most popular company Zara really ethical in 2021?
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Zara may be one of the biggest retailers on the planet, but how sustainable is it and does it use ethical practises?

The Inditex-owned fashion brand 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 count themselves fans of the brand, so it’s not surprising that the brand was valued at almost £14 billion last year.

Here, we take a look behind the scenes.

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Is Zara sustainable?

Zara operates with a business model not too dissimilar to fast-fashion brands such as Pretty Little Thing, Nasty Gal and Boohoo.

The brand releases 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.

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 choice.

Of course, Zara’s fast fashion business model can never be environmentally friendly as manufacturing so many new garments creates huge amounts of waste every year. This goes some way to explain why the average American is estimated to throw away 37kg of clothes each year, 85% of which will end up in landfill or be burned.

However Inditex, the company that owns Zara, last year pledged to create all of its collections from 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025. They also claimed that 80% of the energy consumed in Zara’s headquarters, factories and stores will be from renewable sources by the same year and its facilities will produce zero landfill waste.

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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.

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, 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.

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.

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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.

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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 wellbeing programs are present at half of their factories, which suggests many workers are left unsupported.

This year 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.

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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 disclose 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.

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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.

Read their Animal Welfare Policy here.

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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 is part of the Arcadia group, recently went into administration 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 more savvy than ever.

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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 for every body 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 every body and 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.

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