Zara recently introduced a sustainability pledge, one that will see it using entirely “organic, sustainable, or recycled” cotton, linen and polyester by 2025. “We need to be a force for change, not only in the company but in the whole sector,” Pablo Isla, the chairman and CEO of Zara’s parent company Inditex, said in announcing the seemingly revolutionary initiative in July. But the looming question at play is this: can Zara – or any of the other retail giants whose models are inherently depended on high, disposability-centric turnover – ever be sustainable?

As the largest fast fashion retailer in the world, Zara produces around 450 million garments a year and releases approximately 500 new designs a week, or about 20,000 different styles a year. That amounts to more than 450 million items produced per year. The Inditex-owned giant’s high-speed, high-output manufacturing model – which was largely deemed to be a “remarkable feat” in the retail landscape back in the mid-2000’s – has been so successful that it has inspired an entire industry to shift, one that depends on churning out an unprecedented number of fashion garments year-round. In doing so, it helped to herald in an era of hyper-consumption, which coincided with looming global climate crisis.

Clothing plays a significant role in contributing to the reality that is climate change. The volume of global apparel consumption, for instance, doubled from 2000 to 2014. The average consumer bought 60 percent more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment for half as long before discarding it. Apparel purchases are projected to rise even further – by a whopping 63 percent over the next 10 years, and less than one percent of that clothing is recycled at the end of its already-short lifespan. (And all the while, brands are discarding significant amounts of waste and have been known to destroy tens of millions of dollars of unsold products and unused textiles.)

With production and disposability numbers like these, can any retailer really claim to be sustainable? Almost certainly not. After all, a business model that is based on unending growth is the very antithesis to sustainability, and yet, fashion brands continue to claim efforts related to sustainability. 

For example, some retail giants are introducing recycling programs. Unfortunately, in reality, even if garments are collected by retailers and brands in-store in an attempt to avoid disposal in landfills, the capabilities to recycle clothing at the scale needed for current production rates do not exist. It is also typically more energy-intensive to recycle existing garments than to produce new ones.

Another proposal, the one recently put forth by Zara, aims to use only sustainable fabrics. This is similarly not without issues. This is due, in part, to the fact that there is no such thing as a 100 percent sustainable fabric. Fabrics require a tremendous amount of energy and natural resources to produce. Sustainable fabrics are simply less harmful due to their reduced environmental impact.

More significantly, though, switching to sustainable fabrics while producing garments and accessories in accordance with a model based on producing such volumes of clothing and accessories – especially ones that are produced, promoted and priced in a way to entice disposability – will not make any fast fashion retailer sustainable.

A significant part of the problem is that fast fashion brands, and many of the traditional high fashion brands (the latter of which are often left out of conversations about the need for improvements on the sustainability front), are operating in accordance with a growth model that is predicated on limitless output and high turnover. Large global corporate retailers are not seeking to change their fundamental business model or create cultures of sustainability. That would require re-working their entire business structure, because as of right now, fast fashion is a “grow or die” business, and if this segment’s giants were to nudge consumers towards more responsible consumption behaviors, that would ultimately hurt their bottom line, which is why they don’t.

This is distinct from the approach taken by other, more truly sustainable brands, which focus on creating a culture of sustainability by producing less from the outset. They use strategies like producing made-to-order, so they are not making more than what is sold. They do this because waste is one of their biggest concerns. They also design clothing to ensure durability and longevity, so clothes last a long time in your wardrobe. In the case of Patagonia, for instance, they will also repair your clothing so that you may keep it longer.

The current carbon footprint of the fashion industry is over eight per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, larger than all international travel. Therefore, to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including the 2C global temperature target, the fashion industry must play an active role in changing how they operate, source, manufacture, distribute and approach the market.

Solutions to sustainability must include cultural change – including a differing approach to constant disposable consumption – and alternative sustainable business models, as it is not as simple switching out current textiles or packaging for more sustainable versions.

Anika Kozlowski is an Assistant Professor of Fashion Design, Ethics and Sustainability, School of Fashion at Ryerson University. (Edits courtesy of TFL)