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As a fashion brand, Zara has made a name for itself by democratizing the latest clothing style for consumers at an affordable price. But the rapid pace of the trend-driven business model, known as "fast fashion," can come at high environmental and social costs.
Last week, Zara's parent company, Inditex, announced plans to grow more sustainably.
The fast fashion giant promised that by 2025, all eight brands will only use cotton, linen and polyester that are organic, sustainable or recycled, which is 90% of the raw materials it uses. CEO and CEO Pablo Isla said renewable sources will provide 80% of the energy consumed by the conglomerate's distribution centers, offices and stores. It also plans to move to zero garbage dumps.
It's an important step for a company that churns out 500 new designs a week, says Elizabeth L. Cline, author of two books on the effects of fast fashion.
"What they do is they buy materials that have a better environmental profile," she says. "These are materials that use less water, less energy, less chemicals to produce."
Cline says the speed is sending a powerful message down the supply chain to the manufacturers to be more green.
Cline nevertheless warns that the announcement should be taken with a grain of salt and claim that fast fashion and sustainability are inherently incompatible.
Cline states that although Zara uses materials that are more ethically sourced or have a lower environmental impact, the vast majority of the carbon footprint of fashion comes from manufacturers supplying brands with their materials. When a business builds on a rapid turnover of styles, these products still consume a lot of energy, regardless of whether it uses organic cotton or sells products in more environmentally efficient stores.
"The business model must change and evolve in order for it to function sustainably," she says.
Agriculture affects growing cotton soil health, carbon emissions and water consumption, says Mark Sumner, a lecturer on fashion and sustainability at the University of Leeds in England. Polyester, a popular and inexpensive synthetic material in a fast way, requires the oil industry's recovery and refining of petroleum, processes known to provide fuel for climate change. Then there are the energy-intensive processes for converting that raw material into portable garments. Dying the substance can also introduce harmful chemicals.
"As we post all these different effects, we begin to see a picture of the environmental problems associated with clothing," he says.
The thing that complicates things even more, Sumner says, is that depending on who you ask, the definition of sustainability can vary.
"The fashion industry is not just an industry, it is a whole host of other industries being used and utilized to deliver the garments we are wearing now," he says in an interview with NPR's All Things Tatted .
That's why Cline believes that any tension over Inditex's announcement must be tempered.
"They act too confident about a topic we are still figuring out," she says. "We are still gathering data. We are finding best practices. So in order for Zara to somehow come out of the gate and say that we will be sustainable by 2025, the long road ahead of us is what we have about sustainability and fashion."
Inditex commits $ 3.5 million to research textile recycling technology under a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an investment Cline supports.
At the same time, Cline says it can't be up to the fast fashion industry alone. Consumers and government also have a role to play.
Inditex announcement is a response to consumer pressure, says Cline. "We are in the midst of a consumer-led fashion sustainability revolution."
Unfortunately, she says, much of this movement is tilted toward green washing – a term that refers to a deceptive marketing program where companies spend more effort on their environmental awareness picture than actually being environmentally conscious.
That Zara's parent company has gone public with its sustainability goals is a good sign, Sumner says.
"Over time, they will be held accountable by their shareholders, by voluntary organizations, by media by commentators," he says. "Hopefully, what they want to do is also encourage other brands and retailers to be bold and make these statements as well."
NPR's Leena Sanzgiri and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited the sound of this story.