Within the last few years, the importance of sustainability has skyrocketed and one industry that has been focused on is fashion.
Historically, many fashion companies have produced their clothing in countries with minimal to no labor rights, which led to the companies using inhumane labor to create their products.
This could occur indirectly through a supplier or directly through their own production, either way, this is a violation of human rights. The largest environmental issue caused by fashion companies is excessive production waste.
A huge concern is water waste along with material waste that can not be recycled and waste stemming from packaging.
In this article, I will be analyzing the sustainability efforts of two fashion brands: H&M and Zara.
Both of these companies are multinational retail clothing chains that specialize in fast fashion. Fast fashion is focused on trends that are constantly changing, which is why the inventory at these stores changes constantly and quickly. A big consequence of keeping up with quick-changing trends is that a lot of clothes are wasted and ultimately thrown away once the trend dies out. This results in devastating impacts on our environment, which is why there has recently been a big shift of focus in the eyes of fashion consumers. Many customers are looking to purchase from brands that are environmentally conscious and making honest and efficient efforts to improve their environmental footprint.
A Look into Zara
Zara is the first brand that will be discussed. Zara is a Spanish company with 2,220 stores in 88 different countries. It is owned by its parent company called Inditex group which owns several other fashion brands.
Zara has acted as a pioneer time and time again, leading the fast fashion industry. This is mainly because they are so quick to respond to new and emerging trends and get the clothes produced and in stores at extremely fast speeds.
Zara’s Sustainability Data and Commitments
Looking into specific data from Zara: in their 2021 report they were sitting at 91% of their used energy was renewable and 47% of their products fit their Join Life standards. Their Join Life initiative focuses on using the best processes and more sustainable raw materials to make their clothing. Zara has made two sustainability commitments for 2022.
The first one is “Our goal is that at least 50% of our items marketed in 2022 be manufactured according to the Join Life standards.”
The second one is “We are working to ensure that the energy we use at all our facilities (central offices, logistics centers, and stores) comes from renewable sources.”
Zara has also indicated its goals for 2023 that include “100% more sustainable cellulose fibers” to be used in their bag packaging in stores, “100% more sustainable cotton,” “100% free from single use customer plastics,” “100% zero waste,” and “100% green to pack” by 2023. The green to pack initiative says “We’re redesigning all our packaging to reduce the quantity of raw materials and make it easier to reuse and recycle.”
These initiatives all seem very powerful and effective and would be great strides for the company.
A Look into H&M
Moving onto H&M, they are a Swedish company with about 5,000 stores in 74 different countries. H&M is the other major player in the fast fashion industry that competes with Zara. They are a bit smaller than Zara but they are the second biggest international clothing company. Starting off with the benchmarks they hit last year, H&M reported that in 2021 they were able to triple the share of recycled materials used in their garments (from 5.8% to 17.9%), they had 27.8% reduction in plastic packaging, 98% of suppliers regard H&M Group as a fair business partner, and 180.4 million SEK contributed to community investment initiatives.
H&M’s Commitments to the Future
Currently, they have a lot of initiatives and goals for the future. H&M members are now rewarded for making more sustainable choices. They can earn “conscious points” every time they purchase a conscious item, bring their own bag or recycle with H&M. This is a great incentive for customers, they love reward systems and this gives a positive reward for tasks that also help the environment.
H&M is also very transparent with their products and suppliers, which is very important because they recognize how crucial it is to trace the products back entirely. A company can say they are environmentally sustainable as much as they want, but unless their suppliers and contractors are also environmentally sustainable then the company’s statement means nothing and has no validity to it. H&M realizes this and provides their customers specific information to back up their claims. Anytime you click on one of their clothing pieces you can find out what material is used, what country it came from, and even which supplier company they purchased the materials from. Along with the supplier and factory names, it shows their address and the number of employees they have.
Moreover, H&M does have a goal to be climate positive by 2040 which means they are aiming to remove more greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere than they put into the atmosphere. This is a very progressive and driven goal and they would be paving the path for other companies if they are able to achieve this. Additionally, all of their packaging in-store is made of paper and they have a goal of having all of their online order packaging be made of paper as well. H&M has been recognized by a few different indexes for being one of the most advanced fashion companies as far as sustainability efforts and transparency goes.
So Which is Better?
Overall, H&M and Zara both have concrete sustainability efforts and plans for the future. They have different strategies of implementation and differing approaches to communicating those strategies to the public, which is expected with two completely separate companies.
They both have pros and cons to their strategies. Zara has more quantitative commitments and goals, whereas H&M is a lot more transparent with its materials and suppliers/contractors.
H&M’s goal of being climate positive by 2040 is a very encompassing goal and includes most of the goals Zara has listed individually for the next few years.
All in all, it is difficult to say which company is more sustainable today with total certainty, but based on the wide variety of initiatives and the amazing transparency H&M has I would say they are more committed to action and to sharing their information.
The fast fashion industry in general is challenging from an environmental perspective and it has a very long way to go before brands in this industry can consider themselves truly future-proofed.
However, both of these companies have shown effort to improve their practices and are definitely starting on the right foot. Hopefully, they will continue to commit to new initiatives to truly make a change.