Is Zara Ethical or Sustainable? + Alternative Brands
Some people think Zara isn’t fast fashion because of its higher price point, but it unfortunately is. In fact, Zara is known as the original fast fashion brand. The term “fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times in the 1990s to describe the way Zara could take a garment from design to stores in under 15 days.
Zara might seem like it’s becoming more “sustainable”, but most of their measures aren’t good enough, especially for a global fashion brand with lots of money, power, and resources. In this post, I’ll do a deep dive into their greenwashing and offer alternative options.
For reference, Zara is owned by parent company Inditex, and I will be looking at Inditex’s reports since Zara doesn’t have a sustainability page (a red flag in itself). Inditex’s other brands are: Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius, Oysho, Zara Home, and Uterqüe.
Deep Dive Into Zara’s Ethics and Sustainability
Zara does have some targets to source all fabrics more sustainably by 2025. They state that:
- 100% of their cotton will be recycled, BCI (Better Cotton Initiative), or organic
- 100% their viscose and wood-based fibers will be sourced from responsibly-managed forests
- All synthetic fibers will be 100% recycled
As it stands, however, they’re still using virgin synthetics and conventional viscose and cotton. Synthetics shed microplastics and take hundreds of years to break down. Recycled synthetics are better, but they still shed microplastics as well. Conventional viscose production can lead to deforestation and often involves toxic chemicals. Conventional cotton is water-intensive and can lead to soil degradation and water pollution from pesticides.
Zara also has a recycling program and plans to send nothing to landfills by 2023, but these measures aren’t in the true spirit of circularity when they release new styles daily and push constant consumption. It’s actually quite common for fast fashion brands to have a recycling program, as it helps customers justify buying more. Zara is unfortunately vague about what exactly happens to the clothes. They state:
“The collected clothing is sorted prior to being reused or recycled. Items of clothing that are 100% cotton, wool, or polyester can be recycled into new fabric. The remaining garments will be converted into construction or automotive materials. Items that cannot be reused or recycled because of health or safety reasons or due to the quality of their materials are subjected to a rigorous waste management process.”
I would be curious to know how much is actually being recycled vs. downcycled and what their “waste management process” is. Unfortunately, a lot of “recycled” or donated clothing ends up dumped in the Global South.
Zara also doesn’t mention anything about dyes (which can be toxic) or water or textile waste. The main issue, however, remains their overproduction.
Labor-wise, Zara does have a code of conduct that covers no forced or child labor, fair wages, and safe working conditions. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, they’ve been implicated in using forced labor, so very serious things are definitely slipping through their audits. It’s one thing to have a code of conduct, but another to follow through on them.
Zara doesn’t consistently give back to social causes. They do partner with some charities through their recycling program though, and they did donate 10,000 masks to Covid patients and health workers in Spain in 2020. During the height of BLM protests in 2020, they stated that “We are making economic donations to organizations actively fighting against racism, discrimination and injustice, particularly within Black communities.” It is unclear which organizations they donated to and how much.
I couldn’t find any other information about donations.
Most products at Zara only run from XS-XL, though some popular pieces might come in XXL or XXXL. Size inclusivity is a pretty big issue in fashion, so it would be great to see such a global brand extend their sizing.
They do not have any adaptive clothing for people with disabilities. Similarly, this is an issue, and Zara could really lead the way by offering adaptive styles.
In terms of diversity, Zara has some policies to support gender equality in the workplace, but doesn’t appear to prioritize racial equality or diversity. During the BLM protests in 2020, they posted 3 black squares with the caption “we stand for equality,” which doesn’t really do much.
Zara uses animal products, including leather, cashmere, and wool. Most of the leather appears to be certified by the Leather Working Group for more sustainable practices, and Zara states that the leather must come from “animals raised for food, never solely for their hide.” That said, using virgin leather is still making the inhumane meat industry more profitable. Unfortunately, faux leather (which Zara also uses), isn’t environmentally-friendly either, as it is made from plastic. Plant-based or recycled leather are the better alternatives.
Any wool Zara uses must be mulesing-free (a painful procedure) and come from sheep that are treated responsibly, but it’s unclear how Zara verifies this. Their wool doesn’t appear to have any certifications. There is also no further info about the cashmere.
On the bright side, Zara doesn’t use fur or any synthetics intended to look like fur, and they phased out mohair in 2020.
The Bottom Line
Zara certainly remains a fast fashion brand with some pretty major ethical and environmental issues. I wouldn’t recommend shopping there if you can avoid it, especially since there are sustainable brands with similar size ranges and pricing. I’ll recommend those below!
That said, I recognize that it’s a privilege to avoid fast fashion altogether, especially if you need to shop in-stores, are short on time, or need something really specific (along with the pricing and sizing issues I mentioned already).
I’m not here to judge anyone for their purchases. Regardless of where you buy, I just encourage you to shop mindfully and make your clothes last as long as possible.
Finally, please don’t feel bad if you didn’t know about Zara’s unethical practices; it’s really easy easy to be tricked by greenwashing tactics. The key is to do what you can going forward, in terms of your personal consumption and holding brands accountable.
Ethical Alternatives to Zara
This section contains affiliate links, meaning that I may earn a small commission on any purchases made through these links.
Before shopping new, consider shopping used. I love local thrift stores, but there are also great online platforms. (If you’re concerned about the gentrification of thrifting, my post explains why thrifting is for everyone, as long as you remain mindful in certain situations).
Some online platforms to look at are:
- Etsy (often small creators, but beware of mass-produced goods)
- Poshmark (get $10 off your first purchase with my referral link)
- ThredUP (get $10 off your first purchase with my referral link)
- Mercari (get $10 off your first purchase with my referral link)
- Facebook Buy Sell Trade groups for specific brands or Buy Nothing groups
On these platforms, just look out for drop shipping, which is when retailers sell mass-produced, wholesale items. You can tell items are drop shipped if the seller doesn’t have any original images and if shipping times are super long.
If you can’t find what you need used, here are sustainable brands with a similar price point:
Armedangels—really similar aesthetic and price point to Zara with actually sustainable materials and workers who are paid a living wage (masculine- and feminine-presenting options).
For Days—versatile and relatively affordable organic cotton streetwear with a closed loop model (masculine- and feminine-presenting options).
Pact—relatively affordable clothes made from GOTS-certified and Fair Trade cotton (masculine- and feminine-presenting options)
Kotn—polished styles by a Canadian company that invests in the Egyptian cotton farming community; certified B Corp (masculine and feminine-presenting options)
And here are more expensive, but still amazing brands (styles tend to be more exciting too):
Mayamiko—bold pieces made from locally-sourced fabric in Malawi by artisans who are paid a living wage. (use code LILYFANG10 for 10% off)
Hackwith Design House (up to 4X)—gorgeous staple pieces sewn in-house in Minnesota
Tradlands (up to 5X)—cozy knits and flowy dresses made by workers who are paid a living wage. For first-time customers, use code IMPERFECTIDEALIST15 for 15% off.
Loud Bodies (up to 10X)—beautiful dresses made from natural materials in a small atelier in Romania
Check out my ethical and sustainable brand directory for more recommendations.
I hope this post was helpful in breaking down Zara’s greenwashing. I have a whole post on how to tell if a company is actually sustainable, if you want to learn to evaluate brands on your own. Please also feel free to suggest other brands you’d like to see be evaluated in the comments!
I never really bought anything from Zara because I couldn’t actually afford their clothes before I cared about sustainability, but this is such a good reminder that greenwashing is so common in fast fashion. All these vague statements from such a huge brand just prove that they feel their customers won’t find out what they really do.
Exactly! I also didn’t shop there since it was pricier (I did remember getting it secondhand once or twice though). Really sad how such massive companies (even the inventor of fast fashion) get away with greenwashing like this.
Very interesting article!! Thanks for the reminder 🙂
hello! do you know where zara grow their cotton?