Friday, September 9th, 2011...12:08 pm

Zara launched online shopping in the U.S. this week. But is it ethical?

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Zara is in the business of fast fashion — and I think we can all agree that fast fashion sucks, fueling a culture of constant consumption that latches onto low price points rather than quality craftsmanship, classic style or supporting independent business.

But… every once in a while, fast fashion can have its place. As I’ve shared here before, I’ve purchased a few pieces from H&M that have stood the test of time. I trust my judgement of a well-made garment, and they can be found.

But not all fast fashion is created equal. And on account of Zara launching online shopping in the U.S. this week, I did some research on its ethics — and for the most part, within the context of fast fashion, I found some pleasant surprises.

Zara’s approach differs from most U.S. retailers’ in two key ways:

1. Mimic & respond

Since its start in the Sixties, Zara’s model has been to watch what designer items are in demand and then mimic them, producing limited quantities of its designs. If demand is notably high, they’ll produce more, in as fast as two weeks.

The typical retail model is to anticipate trends — garment styles are produced according to quantities that buyers think their market will respond to, but if demand isn’t as high as expected, we end up with slashed clothes being thrown out by H&M and excess orders being sold off to discount stores like Marshall’s and TJ Maxx.

When supply meets demand, as in Zara’s model, waste is almost eliminated. (Zara doesn’t even typically have a clearance rack.)

The downsides to this are that stock turns over at Zara every TWO weeks — fueling the consumption fire. And of course, borrowing/stealing other designers’ designs is a terrible thing and another conversation altogether.

2. Turnaround time trumps low prices

To accommodate for Zara’s fast turnaround time of hot (read: borrowed/stolen) styles, the brand initially sourced all its manufacturing from within Spain. ”Assuring rapid delivery of trendy, affordable clothes throughout Spain ruled out relocating factories to countries where unregulated labor was cheaper.” #

The brand has expanded its manufacturing reach since then, but as of 2005, 50% of Zara products were manufactured in Spain, 26% in the rest of Europe and 24% in Asian and African countries and the rest of the world. # (Anything produced in Spain complies with Western European labor laws, which are held to a higher standard than those in developing countries.)

One reason it can keep so much manufacturing in Europe that is that “Zara chooses manufacturers than can provide speed over cost.” # To hear of a fast-fashion retailer that isn’t pressuring factories for bottom-of-the-barrel pricing is a first for me, so cheers to that. This explains Zara’s somewhat higher price points than its fast-fashion competitors’.

And speaking of competitors

Just to help complete the picture…

  • H&M was early to the corporate social responsibility game and is known within the industry as being a leading buyer of organic cotton. As mentioned above, it has been busted for destroying and trashing unsold merchandise. (In response, the brand pledged to change its policy and donate rather than destroy. But still.)
  • Forever 21 now lists a social responsibility link on its website, but it has yet to gain much of any credibility in the CSR space. And IMHO, their design aesthetic leaves much to be desired, so why bother.

Keep in mind, strikes against all virtually all brands in this category include factory horror stories from time to time. Zara is not exempt. Any brand farming out mass manufacturing on a global scale will deal with this (as one approved factory contracts out to an unapproved factory, and so on) — which is what makes my own case for avoiding them as much as possible.

Please know that I don’t write this article as a free pass for shopping no-holds-barred from Zara. But to shop there discerningly when you’re strapped for cash or can’t find the right piece anywhere else… I feel ya, sister.

As always, if you want to shop from brands without any skeletons in the closet, shop from independent producers and design houses that handle their production personally!


  • what a really thoughtful article–there’s certainly so much more for a buyer to consider such as materials used (not all organic is created equal), manufacturing conditions, consumer waste, quality of garment, etc. and I think you’ve touched on all the right pieces to this whole. thanks J!

  • Thanks for doing this research! For the most part I ignore fast fashion retailers, although one of my favorite dresses this summer has been a $12 maxi dress from H&M. I’ve never bought anything from Zara, but I recently discovered that they make really interesting shoes. Knowing that they produce most of their stuff in Europe makes me feel a bit better that the people making this clothing are less likely to be exploited.

  • what an amazing article, i never thought about this, what a shame

  • Zara accused in Brazil sweatshop inquiry
    Retail fashion chain Zara is under investigation by Brazil’s ministry of labour after a contractor in São Paulo was found to be using employees in sweatshop conditions to make garments for the Spanish company:

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