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

One of fast fashion's largest players, Zara, has laid out ambitious new sustainability targets as the European Commission looks to regulate the industry. Advocates say Canada still has a long way to go.

As Zara lays out sustainability targets, advocates say Canada has a long way to go

View of used clothes discarded in the Atacama desert, in Alto Hospicio, Iquique, Chile, on September 26, 2021.

One of fast fashion's biggest players says it's taking major steps toward a more sustainable business model. But in an industry predicated on low cost, low quality and high production volume, experts say it won't be simple.

"It's hard to see how they actually deliver on their emissions reductions targets," said Ken Pucker, a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who focuses on sustainability.

"Because volumes are going to continue to go up."

In an ambitious new plan, Inditex, Zara's parent company, announced earlier this month that it will seek to cut its emissions in half by 2030, and become net zero by 2040. It also says it will transition to using materials that last longer and are easier to recycle.

Inditex, Zara’s parent company, announced on July 11 that it will cut its emissions in half by 2030, and become net zero by 2040.

Experts say the move signals a shift toward a circular business model — meaning materials get reused and regenerated instead of thrown away — as the fashion industry faces more and more criticism over its outsized environmental footprint.

In 2021, the World Economic Forum identified the fashion industry as the world's third-largest polluter. And as the trend cycle accelerates, most of the clothing purchased is only worn seven times before it's thrown out, according to a 2015 British study.

In its new plan, Zara says 40 per cent of the company's fibres will come from recycled material, 25 per cent from sustainably farmed crops, and another 25 per cent from "next-generation materials" that Inditex is investing in.

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

"To get to their targets, these things all have to happen yesterday. And I worry that there is insufficient financial incentive and time that will compromise their ability to deliver on their goals," said Pucker.

Ken Pucker is a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who focuses on sustainability.

The fast fashion industry is expanding. Companies like Shein and Fashion Nova, for instance, have gained huge popularity through social media, where Shein has 29.6 million followers on Instagram and people regularly post their fashion hauls on TikTok.

For fast fashion, the need to continually produce and grow presents a paradox, said Shivika Sinha, founder of the U.S.-based sustainable styling service Veneka.

"The paradox is that Zara is one of the originators of the fast-fashion model," Sinha said. "It's going to be tough for them to implement."

Still, Sinha said she believes Zara's targets are achievable.

"There is enough innovation on recycling for Zara to achieve these goals.… I think it's a matter of Zara's culture and where they prioritize their funding toward these sorts of projects, and how the EU is holding them accountable."

Motivating companies to make less

Zara's accelerated new goals come as the European Commission is drawing up a slew of new regulations that will require fashion companies to produce clothes in a more sustainable way and take accountability for their environmental impacts.

The Commission is proposing to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for textiles in all EU member states, making producers responsible for the full life cycle of their products. Once implemented, producers would become responsible for the cost of managing their textile waste.

According to the European Environment Agency, in 2019, 46 per cent of Europe's used textiles ended up in African countries. The agency says what isn't fit for reuse often ends up in open landfills and informal waste streams.

The idea behind EPR schemes is to motivate companies to make fewer garments, said Kelly Drennan, executive director of Fashion Takes Action, a non-profit in Toronto.

"The more garments they make, the higher the cost is going to be to manage the end of life. So if they can actually slow down the production, produce less, then that is actually going to save them money in the end," she said.

Kelly Drennan is the executive director of Fashion Takes Action, a non-profit that works to advance sustainability in the fashion industry.

Drennan says she is hopeful of the impact Europe's EPR rules could have on Canada.

"We'll benefit, ultimately, from seeing clothing that is made from more sustainably sourced materials, that is more durable, that has the end of life considered at the time that it is being designed. And hopefully we'll see less waste as a result."

Is Canada falling behind?

In Canada, there are no EPR programs in place specifically for textiles, Drennan said. That's because much of our waste is managed at a provincial or municipal level, with little harmonization across provinces.

Drennan estimates it will take approximately 10 years before Canada builds up to a textile EPR scheme for its own textile companies. Canadians toss nearly 500 million kilograms of fabric items every year, according to researchers at the University of Waterloo.

Without proper legislation, it's up to companies to take the lead, Drennan said, noting policies like those in Europe are the only way the industry will make significant changes.

"While there are some leaders investing time, money and research into sustainability, circularity and human rights initiatives, most brands are not. And it's going to take legislation for them to start thinking differently."

Bales of sorted second-hand clothes are seen being piled up at a facility operated by Zheng-chuan textile recycling factory on July 15, 2022 in New Taipei City, Taiwan.

But even as fast-fashion companies such as Zara attempt to reduce their ecological footprint, Drennan anticipates 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 challenging aspect we're facing right now is a new era of fast fashion, or what we're calling ultra-fast fashion, with brands like Shein and Fashion Nova and Boohoo that are pumping out thousands of styles every single day. We're hopeful that EPR legislation will impact those brands down the road."

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