Can sustainability save the high street?

Can sustainability save the high street?

In learning to embrace sustainability, a pioneer of fast fashion is showing other high street retailers a possible path to salvation

At its annual shareholders’ meeting last week, the owner of Zara pledged that all of the fashion chain’s clothes will be made from sustainable fabrics by 2025. Spanish group Inditex has already finished as top retailer in the Dow Jones sustainability index from 2016 to 2018, but just how sustainable is its Zara brand? Let’s look back a little further.

Fast start

In the mid-noughties, Zara quickly built a global brand as a novel purveyor of what was then called ‘instant fashion’. It distinguished itself with lightning-fast production cycles that helped it launch around three times as many items a year as older rivals such as H&M or Gap. Quick turnovers created a kind of pre-social media FOMO, encouraging shoppers to buy now for fear of items disappearing forever just days or weeks later.

Since those heady days, sustainability has emerged as a defining issue of our time and Zara’s impact on our shopping habits has been called into question. By encouraging us to buy more items and reducing their lifespan, fast fashion’s environmental contribution is significant and troublesome. Government statistics show the UK produces 300,000 tonnes of textile waste a year, a lot of which comes from the fashion sector. It has also been estimated that by extending the lifespan of a garment by nine months, its environmental footprint – including carbon emissions – is reduced by up to 30%. Zara’s product cycles are, by contrast, measured in days and weeks.

Turning green

At last week’s meeting, Inditex CEO Pablo Isla was very keen to set the group’s flagship chain apart, describing it as the “opposite of a fast-fashion company”. In pursuit of further differentiation, Zara has set itself some other new green goals: all stores to be “eco-efficient” by the end of the year; 80% of the energy it uses in stores, distribution centres and offices to be renewable by 2025. And used items can already be dropped off for recycling in more than 1,300 of its stores. “But there’s a danger that making it easy to recycle clothes perpetuates the belief that they are disposable,” warns CIM’s Ally Lee-Boone. “And do we actually know what happens to the clothing we return?”

If Zara is to embrace sustainability convincingly, transparency will be key. “It also needs to be looking for preventions, not cures,” says CIM marketing director Gemma Butler. “The root of fashion’s environmental problem is consumer shopping habits. Changing those habits – helping customers understand and embrace the alternatives to short-term, high-volume consumption – would be the most effective way to make fashion more sustainable.”

“Given Zara’s fast-fashion origins, it is easy to see this as greenwashing,” says Lee-Boone, “because these latest initiatives are distractions from this much bigger, more fundamental issue.” But all is not lost for Zara and, indeed, the world we live in.

Business is business

Zara’s engagement with sustainability is definitely trending upwards. At a time when consumers are demanding responsible retailing, it is listening and is being rewarded for that.

It was today announced by CBI that retailers are suffering the longest period of declining sales for almost eight years. However, in defiance of the struggles afflicting so many high street chains, Zara’s most recent results saw sales up 5%, with JP Morgan describing the performance as “particularly impressive”.

Contrast that with, say, Asos, the pioneer of online fast fashion that has issued three profit warnings since October and only this week saw a social media event go awry. Offered the chance to win a £500 voucher on Twitter, respondents to the #ThanksItsAsos competition hijacked the hashtag to bombard the firm with accusations about its poor treatment of both workers and the environment. Asos did recently introduce a ‘Responsible’ filter for customers wanting to browse only clothes made from recycled and sustainable materials, but clearly needs to do more.

Impressive financial performance is still the most compelling argument you can present to a business. If Zara is to be that force for change the industry – and the world – needs, it must now take the next step. Rather than just trying to offset some of the environmental excesses of its current model, the model itself needs to change. Achieve this profitably, and it will light the way for other high street retailers – and perhaps a few online rivals – to save themselves while making a notable positive contribution to the state of the world.


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