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Can fast fashion slow down? It’s not that simple

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One of the biggest fast fashion companies said it was taking a big step towards a more sustainable business model. But in an industry predicated on low cost, low quality and mass production, that won’t be easy, experts say.

“It’s hard to see how they’re actually meeting their emissions reduction targets,” said Ken Packer, a lecturer at Tufts University’s Fletcher School in Medford, Massachusetts, who focuses on sustainability.

“Because the volume will continue to increase.”

Zara’s parent company Inditex announced earlier this month that it aims to halve its emissions by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2040 in an ambitious new plan. It also says it will shift to using materials that last longer and are easier to recycle.

Old clothes discarded in the Atacama Desert in Alto Ospicio, Chile. In 2021, the World Economic Forum identified the fashion industry as the world’s third-largest polluter. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty)

Experts say the move signals a shift to a circular business model — meaning materials are reused and regenerated rather than thrown away — as the fashion industry faces criticism for its enormous environmental footprint.

In 2021, world economic forum identified the fashion industry as the third largest source of pollution in the world. And as the trend cycle accelerates, one study found that most of the clothes she buys end up being thrown out after she’s only worn them seven times. 2015 UK Survey.

In its new plan, Zara says that 40 percent of the textiles in the Spanish-based international clothing chain will come from recycled materials, 25 percent from sustainably farmed crops and another 25 percent from “next-generation materials” in which Inditex is investing.

The biggest problem, experts say, is that the company shows no signs of slowing production, raising questions about how realistic these targets are.

“All these things have to happen yesterday to reach our goals, and I worry about insufficient financial incentives and time to undermine our ability to reach our goals,” Packer said.

Zara parent company Inditex announced on July 11 that it plans to halve its emissions by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2040.
Inditex, the parent company of fast-fashion retailer Zara, announced on July 11 that it aims to halve its emissions by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2040. (Andrea Comas/Reuters)

The fast fashion industry is expanding. For example, companies like Shein and her Fashion Nova have gained immense popularity through her social media, Shein has her 29.6 million followers on her Instagram, and people regularly post their fashion creations on her TikTok.

Shivika Sinha, founder of US-based sustainable styling service Veneka, said there is a paradox for fast fashion that needs to produce and grow continuously.

“The paradox is that Zara is one of the founders of fast fashion models,” Sinha said. “It will be difficult for them to do it.”

Still, Sinha said she believes Zara’s goals are achievable.

“Zara has enough recycling innovation to meet these goals,” she said. “I think it’s a question of ZARA’s culture and their priorities for funding this kind of project and how the EU holds ZARA accountable.”

encourage companies to cut profits

The acceleration of Zara’s new goals comes at a time when the European Commission is developing a slew of new regulations that will require fashion companies to produce clothes more sustainably and be accountable for their environmental impact.

The Commission proposes to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) All EU Member States have introduced regimes for textiles, making producers responsible for the entire life cycle of their products. If introduced, producers will bear the cost of managing textile waste.

according to European Environment Agency, In 2019, 46 percent of Europe’s used textiles went to African countries. According to the agency, what is not suitable for reuse often ends up in stray landfills and informal waste streams.

Kelly Drennan, executive director of Toronto nonprofit Fashion Takes Action, said the idea behind the EPR plan is to encourage companies to produce less clothing.

“The more clothing we make, the more it costs us to manage it over its lifetime. So if we can actually slow down production and produce less, in the end we’re actually saving money,” she said.

Ken Packer is a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Massachusetts, with a focus on sustainability.
Ken Packer is a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School in Medford, Massachusetts, with a focus on sustainability. (Courtesy of Ken Packer)

Drennan said he is excited about the impact of European EPR rules on Canada.

“Ultimately, we will benefit from seeing clothing that is made from more sustainable sources, is more durable, and has longevity in mind when designing it.

Is Canada lagging behind?

Canada does not have a textile-specific EPR program, Drennan said. That’s because much of the waste is managed at the state or municipal level, with little coordination between states.

Drennan estimates that it will take about 10 years for Canada to develop a textile EPR scheme for its textile companies. He said Canadians throw away nearly 500 million kilograms of textiles each year. Researcher at the University of Waterloo.

Without proper legislation, it’s up to companies to take the lead, Drennan said, noting that policies like Europe’s are the only way to make a big difference in the industry.

“While some leaders are investing time, money and research into sustainability, circularity and human rights initiatives, most brands are not, and legislation will be needed for brands to start thinking differently.”

Kelly Drennan is Executive Director of Fashion Takes Action, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing sustainability in the fashion industry.
Kelly Drennan is Executive Director of Fashion Takes Action, a Canadian non-profit organization working to advance sustainability in the fashion industry. (Courtesy Kelly Drennan)

But despite the efforts of fast-fashion companies such as Zara to reduce their environmental footprint, Drennan expects an even bigger challenge for the industry: ultra-fast fashion.

“Historically, they[ZARA, H&M]are the king and queen of fast fashion,” she said.

“The difficult aspect we are currently facing is the new era of fast fashion, or what we call ultra-fast fashion, with brands like Shein, Fashion Nova and Boohoo pushing out thousands of styles every day. We expect the EPR law to impact these brands in the future.”

Bales of used clothing are seen being sorted and piled up at a facility operated by the Zhengchuan Textile Recycling Factory in New Taipei City, Taiwan, July 15, 2022.
Bales of used clothing are seen being sorted and piled up at a facility operated by the Zhengchuan Textile Recycling Factory in New Taipei City, Taiwan, July 15, 2022. Researchers at the University of Waterloo say Canadians alone throw away nearly 500 million kilograms of textiles each year. (Annabelle Chee/Getty)

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