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Sustainability in fashion must go beyond targets and processes

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Fashion |OPINION

Hardly a day goes by without a fashion brand broadcasting its sustainability efforts and principles, trumpeting a strategy of environmental targets multi-channel ad nauseam so that none of us folks miss the message.

This week it was fast fashion giant Zara’s parent company, the Spanish conglomerate Inditex, who made a big kerfuffle about the measures the company plans to implement to reach its newly publicised green targets. These include eliminating hazardous chemicals from its supply chain by 2020, eradicating the use of fibres from endangered species and forests and increasing its eco-conscious collection to account for 20 percent of its clothing offer. The company also plans to move away from single-use plastic from its packaging and has set a target to use only sustainably sourced cotton, linen and recycled polyester for all its portfolio brands. It also promised to use 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Fast fashion companies are in business to produce high volume collections at speed

What it didn’t promise, however, is that it would produce less of the fast, disposable fashion that ends up as waste. This problem isn’t going anywhere when the UK sends over 235 million clothing items to landfill each year.

Inditex’s commitments are laudable, of course, and like other businesses it must align with changing consumer values and to an industry that is becoming more regulated and under pressure to raise environmental standards.

But it takes so much more than revising a sourcing strategy and pledge to use sustainable fabrics to make clothing. The problem with the fast fashion industry and sustainability dichotomy is the sheer volume of excess clothing produced, day in day out, where clothing garments no longer have value beyond a single wear. When fast fashion items cost the equivablenm of a cup of coffee, as in the case of Inditex brand Pull & Bear, which sells full price t-shirts for 4.99 euros or a pair of jeans, currently available discounted for at 9.99 Zara, the equivalent cost of a pizza.

Value-based sustainability is about making less, buying less and buying better

Value-based sustainability is about making less, buying less and buying better. In the past decade fashion has been speeding up to the extend that there is a constant influx of new clothes arriving in stores on a daily basis and a never-ending feed of images that we see online, in print and in advertising to entice the consumer to buy more frequently. The new normal is to discard clothing, diminishing per wear ratios, and because clothing is so cheap, there isn’t the feeling of a financial pinch if a garment gets only one wear.

Much of the never-be-seen-in-the-same-look-twice culture has been fueled by celebrities, who for every public engagement, be it leaving their hotel under the scathing eye of tabloid photographers, or walking the red carpet for a publicity tour, are never photographed in the same outfit twice. Such is the lifecycle of clothing, that it lasts only as long as an image is relevant in a feed.

And as these images pop up in our Insta-feeds, we want those looks to be available now. The stream of the feed is nearly matched by the sheer speed of manufacturing, reducing production lead times to mere weeks (in the case of Zara just 15 days) to get items from design to manufacturing to shop floor. This is the business model that has propelled Inditex to be one of the world’s most successful fast fashion businesses and largest producers of clothing. Its business model is based on intelligence, speed and immediacy. One of its factories, based in Tunisia, can churn out 1,200 pieces per day, the equivalent of150 pieces per hour.

A Zara factory can churn out 150 clothing garments per hour

According to a documentary released last year, titled: Zara: The Story of the World's Richest Man, each worker is monitored for their productivity, enforced by a floor manager timing their work with a stopwatch - a process it aptly calls "working to the minute.” The documentary reveals it should take 38 minutes to finish a shirt. If it takes any longer, it will dent profits. The shirt will then be sold for 29 euros, three times the manufacturing cost. Employees who perform well earn a 45 euro bonus at the end of the year.

Like Zara’s uber streamlined operations, rising consumer spending has buoyed clothing production which doubled from 2000 to 2014. The number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by 60 percent, according to research by McKinsey. Sadly, most high street retailers aren’t offering any solutions to the sheer volume and overproduction of clothing. Producing less would affect turnover, and these businesses are yet to match their highly profitable sales gains with commensurate environmental improvements.

"We are always looking for ways in which we can do better: working on new technologies, new ways to work with recycled materials, and helping create new fabrics that our designers, as well as others in the industry, can work with in the future,” Marta Ortega, daughter of Inditex founder Armancio Ortega tells Vogue. “It’s the right thing to do, both morally and commercially, and it's an approach that we’re absolutely committed to.”

But like its fast fashion peers, Inditex doesn’t yet have a solution to tackle the disposable problem it generates. Installing recycling bins for customers to return unwanted clothes in its stores is thought by many to be a marketing tool to lure them back in and purchase new items as opposed to genuinely tackling waste.

Truthfully, the onus lies with customers to stop buying.

Image source: Zara website

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