“I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it,” read tags affixed to Zara garments. The Spanish fast fashion giant has been making headlines as of late after such notes began appearing on garments in its stores in Istanbul alerting consumers that it has not compensated an array of garment workers within its supply chain. The news has been met with outrage, and a flurry of articles examining the potential damage this stands to wreak upon Zara’s reputation.
As Fast Co. stated this week, “By failing to respond swiftly to factory workers who haven’t been compensated, Zara is doing serious damage to its brand.” But is the revelation that Zara has not acted ethically in terms of the manufacturing of its products really doing significant damage to its brand? There is a strong argument that the answer is "no."
Interestingly, many consumer-facing companies in Zara’s shoes would undoubtedly be inviting irreparable damage upon their reputations by failing to take steps beyond fulfilling their legal obligations with the Bravo Tekstil factory, itself, which abruptly shut down last year depriving its employees of their earnings, which is why they have turned their attention to Zara. However, Zara may not actually stand to suffer in any meaningful way from all of this bad press. And the reason is simple. Zara is a fast fashion retailer.
Unlike luxury brands, such as Chanel or Hermès – the ones that demand exorbitant prices from consumers and that are maybe most susceptible to the effects of bad press – fast fashion retailers, especially after the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013 (in which a building housing many mass-market-supplying garment factories, killing 1,134 people), do not have stunning reputations when it comes to manufacturing to uphold in the first place.
Much like how the reputations of the Forever 21’s of the world are not significantly tarnished when they are called out for copying (fast fashion retailers are known – and in many cases – sought out due to the fact that they offer runway copies for sale), the Zara’s of the world, with their relatively inexpensive garments and accessories, are simply not known for boasting ethically sound supply chains in the first place. Squeaky clean suppliers devoid of long lists of labor abuses are not what fast fashion retailers, like Zara, are traditionally associated with.
These retailers are known for their offerings of affordable garments that in many cases look a lot like much more expensive garments. Such prices are largely made possible due to these retailers’ questionable supply chains. That – along with design piracy – is their trademark, more or less. So, when they are called out for having ethically (and in some cases, legally) questionable manufacturers, it tends to be nothing more than business as usual.
Even if it is “news” to some consumers that fast fashion and many mass-market retailers maintain rosters of shoddy suppliers, claims that such events will do serious damage to Zara’s reputation and prompt consumers to shop elsewhere, and thereby, have a significant negative impact Zara's bottom line, overlook the fact that placing value in and acting upon concerns over supply chain transparency and sustainability issues is a luxury, even amongst socially-conscious millennials.
While it is becoming increasingly more convenient and affordable, finding alternatives to sweatshop-made garments and accessories or those made in accordance with strict supply chain standards is still a time-consuming process and most commonly leads to garments that come with notably higher price tags. This is, after all, why fast fashion retailers have been so enormously profitable.
Sure, for those of us who care about the dirty practices of fast fashion retailers and have the resources and awareness that allow us to be more considered in our consumption habits, such reports provide damning information that we are willing and able to act upon. However, for those who maintain limited budgets and/or do not want one ethically-made garment and would prefer 5 from Zara, such bad press is unfortunate but does not tend to be earth-shattering. Zara knows this.
Not convinced? You may recall that in 2011 and then again in 2013, Zara was accused of sourcing its garments and accessories from factories maintaining bona fide slave-labor working conditions. Slave-labor. It is still one of the most sought-after and valuable brands on the market.