Zara’s sustainable collection – great clothes that raise big questions

04 October 2016

Zara's new collection

Recently Zara launched its new ‘Join Life’ collection – its pitch to the fast fashion lovers with an eye to the future. I watched with interest how this was received.

The good news for the company is that the clothes have generally gotten a big thumbs up. Great write-ups for items like the new gathered waist jumpsuit, with its clean image with a burnt orange hue. Classy. 

What was interesting was just how many mainstream sites – sites that spend the rest of their time celebrating every aspect of the giddy helter-skelter of the fashion and beauty industries – were actually quite sniffy about the sustainability side.

Like this quote from Refinery29. “And while we wish we could give Zara a huge pat on the back for its eco-minded initiative, it’s hard to take it seriously when it comes from a retailer that’s built its empire by churning out new pieces every week.”

Because God Forbid that successful retailers should try to be more sustainable. Small hippy shops only, please.

Yes, there is an important point there, which we’ll deal with later. But standard collections don’t attract such observations. So it’s purely a ‘damned if you do’ situation. Which isn’t a helpful message to send out.

Zara item
Source: Zara

What makes the new collection better? 

The new clothes feature a lot of the season’s current trends, with ruffled tops and sleeve details and more. Nobody wants the ‘sustainable’ collection to look fusty and dull.

The point of difference is mostly the materials. The clothes are made from organic cotton, recycled wool and a fabric made from sustainably sourced wood cellulose called Tencel.

But it’s not as though this one collection has suddenly appeared from nowhere. Zara has been gradually carving out a place for itself at the upper end of industry best practice in a number of areas.

It has been adding items using materials like organic cotton before this collection brought it centre stage.

Zara owner Inditex has been methodically investing millions of euros in eco-efficient stores with low energy consumption and significant percentages of renewable energy. So far, more than 50 percent of its stores worldwide are eco-efficient, with more on the way.

It also adopted a target of zero landfill waste, which is no trivial commitment in this particular industry.

The company was named as the most sustainable retailer in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which marked in particular its “pioneering stance on human rights” in the supply chain.

The bigger challenge that won’t go away

Unfair though it may be that good steps forward earn sniffy comments, these are at least indicative of the growing awareness of the fundamental challenge at the heart of the fast fashion business model.

Zara item
Source: Zara

Inditex is reportedly responsible for nearly 1.2bn items in the marketplace last year, sold through its network of 7,000 stores. 

You shouldn’t hold that against the company. It’s successful. People want to wear its clothes.

The point really is the habit that all this production is feeding.

The average fast-fashion item is worn no more than seven times before taking up long-term residence in the closet. That is the pattern of consumption and usage that we have become used to.

Blaming the fashion companies for this is like blaming the oil companies (which people do, of course) for the emissions that we personally produce when we use their products in our cars and homes. So convenient to take ourselves out of the equation and make the companies the villains.

But they follow the market logic. Currently, the business model that works in fashion is that you make profit by making clothes that people want to wear.

It’s ridiculous to say, as some did on the launch of the Zara sustainability line, that fashion companies should voluntarily ship fewer clothes and make less profit. Since the consumers still want the clothes because that’s their habit, someone else will simply fill the gap.

When faced with a status quo such as we have, there are two things to be done.

First, reduce the impact of business-as-usual. And it’s great when companies like Zara take this on, because it pushes better practices to scale – which is exactly what we need.

What we want, of course, is for all Zara’s clothes to meet the highest standards, not just its ‘Join Life’ line. But if, in the mean time, it can use its marketing to help make more sustainable choices sexy and fashionable, that’s a great contribution too.

Second comes the bigger question of how one changes the fashion business model to enable great companies to thrive with patterns that result in less consumption. As I’ve discussed before, some companies, such as Mud Jeans, have started experimenting with lease models. 

After all, if the average fast fashion item gets worn only seven times, that – in principle – makes it perfect for a process where people don’t own clothes, but get to wear them for a period before sending them back (and getting something new in return).

It’s easy to say, but as ever you can only go as fast as the customer is willing to go. One step at a time.

Right now, introducing desirable ranges that raise the profile of environmental impact as Zara has just done, and as H&M did before it, may well constitute that next step.

After all, relatively recent research showed that mainstream consumers were rather negative towards people who go out of their way to consume ethical products. You shouldn’t underestimate how much of a shift in attitudes still needs to take place.

In the mean time, enjoy Zara’s new line. They’re great clothes, fully deserving of being worn far more often than seven times before being abandoned for the next thing.

Because that last bit, of course, is the choice that is fairly and squarely in your own hands.


Related: 5 Brands bringing more sustainable fashion to the mainstream