Clothing and the environment
Clothing production has long been one of the most polluting supply chains in the world. The fashion industry faces environmental challenges at every step of the supply chain, from raw material creation to finished goods delivery . Once in consumers’ hands, clothing enters another supply chain of use, care, and disposal.
Fast fashion’s increasing dominance has only exacerbated this issue as it has increased the volume of clothing made, sold, and eventually sent to landfills. Between 2000 and 2014, global clothing production doubled as a result of supply chain optimizations and lower prices that facilitated consumer demand . However, the lifetime of a clothing item has been cut in half as consumers value new styles and fast fashion’s lower quality products degrade faster .
The majority of clothing lands in the trash. In 2012, 84 percent of the US’ unwanted clothing ended up in the garbage. Americans are now throwing away an average of 80 pounds of clothing per person per year. In total this amounts to 14 million tons, double the amount of clothing added to landfills 20 years ago . The data is even worse for fast-fashion, as secondhand stores frequently reject their lower quality items, leaving the consumer with alternative but to throw them away.
Sustainability is the new hot word in fashion
Consumer interest in sustainability has increased recently. Just last month, fast fashion king H&M partnered with other major brands such as Nike and Levi’s to pledge to use 100% sustainable cotton by 2025 . Brands founded on a sustainability mission have also become some of the hottest labels in fashion. One example, Reformation, even borrows from the “Zara-like fast fashion model” to make clothing from sustainable and recycled fabrics . Reformation’s venture-backing, along with commercial success, provide additional validation that the sustainability trend may be here to stay .
Inditex examines its operations
Fast fashion pioneer Inditex, parent company of Zara, turned consumers onto the idea that they could purchase trendy clothing, en masse, at a low cost. Its revenue nearly tripled between 2005 and 2014 on the back of fast fashion .
In recent times, Inditex is also jumping on the sustainability bandwagon. Its supply chain improvement efforts have already received acknowledgement, and in 2017 it won a Gold Medal in the Dow Jones Sustainability Yearbook . Two major initiatives Inditex is using to drive sustainability are product traceability and eco-conscious collections.
New technology allows Inditex to record all the material producers and factories involved in a garment. In 2016, it used these systems to enforce product traceability, working with 1,805 different suppliers across 53 countries to detail the factories they used. Inditex’s purchasing teams were also involved in this process, ensuring they gained greater awareness of their supplier’s relationships and were only buying from suppliers who met Inditex’s sustainability criteria. As a next step, Inditex will look to audit its traceability system .
Inditex is also bringing the environmental message directly to shoppers. In November 2015, it launched its first sustainable collection, named “Join Life”. Items in this line meet the following standards or demonstrate “continuous improvement” towards them :
- Primary fabric is sustainable (organic, recycled, or Better Cotton Intiative approved cotton; Tencel; or recycled polyester or polyamide)
- Manufactured using Inditex-identified “Green to Wear” technologies, which include water recycling, sustainable wet processes, and renewable energy .
Inditex has the opportunity to set further standards for the rest of the industry. It can bring its product traceability to consumers and re-evaluate its core fast fashion value proposition to increase the impact of its current initiatives.
Customer savviness regarding products’ environmental impact is increasing, and Inditex should address the trend by sharing its supply chain information. This transparency can also market a point of difference against competitors. As an example, sustainability-first brand Reformation communicates its efforts through a “RefScale” .
However, regardless of the improvements Inditex makes in its supply chain, it faces an existential challenge as a fast fashion company. Fast fashion is built on a model of encouraging consumers to buy frequently and in high quantity. The vast majority of these goods end up in landfills. While recycling the clothing is a better alternative, it still fails to address the fact that the world simply does not need that the volume of clothing that is being produced. If Inditex is serious about sustainability, it may need to evolve away from the high volume fast fashion model.
But given the financial success of fast fashion, is it realistic for Inditex to migrate away from the model that drove its growth? More broadly, are its sustainability efforts honest efforts to reduce its environmental impact, or are they simply another avenue for marketing?
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- Textile Exchange, “Over 36 Major Brands Pledge to Achieve Sustainable Cotton by 2025,” CSRWire, http://www.csrwire.com/press_releases/40462-Over-36-Major-Brands-Pledge-to-Achieve-Sustainable-Cotton-by-2025 (Oct. 11, 2017)
- Koblin, J., “Reformation, an Eco Label the Cool Girls Pick,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/style/reformation-an-eco-label-the-cool-girls-pick.html?_r=0 (Dec. 17, 2014)
- “Reformation Company Profile,” PitchBook, https://pitchbook.com/profiles/company/111000-61 (accessed Nov. 15, 2017)
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- Fernandez, C., “What We Know About Zara’s First Sustainable Collection,” Fashionista, https://fashionista.com/2016/09/zara-sustainable-collection-join-life (Sep. 21, 2016)
- Inditex Global Water Management Strategy, https://www.wateractionplan.com/en/web/gestion-del-agua/green-to-wear-best-technologies (accessed Nov. 15, 2017)
- The Reformation Rimini Dress, https://www.thereformation.com/products/rimini-dress-gold (accessed Nov. 15, 2017)