Brands such as ZARA and TOPSHOP are synonymous with the term ‘fast fashion’ and the unsustainable over-consumption of goods. In recent years, society’s view of shopping has changed.

Photos: © ZARA Join Life Collection

Big Brands And Their Big Collections

The brand´s desire to have multiple items instantaneously in stock has created a seismic shift in how big brands present themselves. The pressure to produce huge quantities at low prices in order compete in an increasingly competitive market is particularly great at the moment, and as a result, the effects are pretty devastating.
However, the consumer´s interest has once again started to shift due to tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 and release of the documentary, The True Cost, which has allowed for sustainability to be propelled into the mainstream.

zara eco collection join life
Photo and text (screenshots): © ZARA Join Life Collection Summer 2017

More than 14 percent of US consumers shopped for clothing and accessories that are made from natural materials in 2016. This is up from 12.9 percent in 2015, according to an Euromonitor International survey. Furthermore, reused and recycled materials grew in popularity by two percent in 2016. As a result, fast-fashion chains have had to elicit a response, but the question remains whether it is merely a marketing ploy masking other questionable practices or a step in the right direction.

zara join life
Photos: © ZARA Join Life Collection Summer 2017

ZARA´s ‘Join Life’ Collection

ZARA created a Join Life range in September 2016. In order for items to qualify for ‘Join Life’ status, they have to be made with organic cotton (conventional cotton requires 90% more water to produce than its organic equivalent), recycled wool, or Tencel (a wood fibre sourced from sustainably managed forests).

join life
Photo and text (screenshots): © ZARA Join Life Collection Summer 2017

ZARA also testifies to the fact that quality controls take place at each stage of the supply chain to “ensure products are good for people and the environment”. Furthermore, clothes collection boxes have been placed in certain stores in order to encourage recycling amongst its customers and cardboard boxes that carry online orders are reused up to five times before being recycled and carry the FSC (forest Stewardship Council) certification. This allows ZARA to “avoid felling of some 21.840 trees and reduce our CO2 emissions by 1.680 tonnes a year”.

Photo: © ZARA

TOSHOP´s ‘Reclaim To Wear’ Collection

TOPSHOP’s Reclaim To Wear Collection is made entirely from surplus material and production off-cuts. Although nothing from the range is currently available online.

topshop sustainable collection upcycled
Photo: © TOPSHOP

Having said that, Arcadia, TOPSHOP’s parent group, reported that it is committed to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) and its 2020 targets and has been a member of the Better Cotton Initiative. They have identified three cotton suppliers, including a denim supplier, to collaborate with on this project. Signifying some awareness of the sustainable world and the need to engage with it.

topshop reclaim
Photos: © TOPHOP Reclaim To Wear

“Does it make sense that brands such as TOPSHOP and GUCCI can support one good cause while neglecting another?” Kathleen Lee-Joe, Daily Life.

It is important not to forget that the garment industry is primarily a business model. These targeted “sustainable” campaigns are not necessarily catering to the interests of society as a whole but instead enjoying a commercial benefit through raising their reputation.

Is It All Greenwashing?

The GREENWASHING INDEX defines greenwashing as “when a company or organisation spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimise environmental impact”. So are these forays into sustainability by major brands merely a greenwashing practice?
Emily Bezzant, head analyst at fashion-tracking company EDITED, said that the Join Life pieces only make up 1.5 percent of ZARA’s whole collection. Furthermore, the high production rates at ZARA, which were reported to be over 1,018,995,911 units in 2014, attest to the fact that whilst this fast-fashion company may have introduced some preliminary steps towards sustainability, its model is still truly unsustainable.

What is more, TOPSHOP is yet to publicly share a list of supplier names and addresses and according to FASHION REVOLUTION, they scored 25% on the Transparency Index (Download the full Fashion Revolution Transparency Index here). With their ‘Reclaim To Wear’ collection not currently showcasing any designs it would suggest that their commitment to the cause is questionable and further pressure is required in order for sustainability to become imbedded in their practices.

Better Than Nothing?

That being said, it is important to recognize that steps have been taken, even if they are small ones and that these small changes can have a positive butterfly effect. As Stella McCartney was quoted saying, “Everyone can do simple things to make a difference, and every little bit does count.” By introducing sustainable lines, brands such as Zara and Topshop are tackling the challenge of making sustainability accessible.

The Cost

Currently, brands with established sustainability practices have to produce items at higher retail prices, Reformation, whose retail prices range from $48 for a simple striped vest up to $598 for their Eliana dress in their Wedding collection, is one such model. Whilst they are an innovative example of how the fashion industry can revolutionise the way that it operates, these prices are still out of reach for many consumers and as the old saying goes “out of sight, out of mind”.

These collections are an important attempt at counteracting that. ZARA has a basic strappy top in their ‘Join Life’ collection that costs £9.90, which is the same as their main line. On the flip side, it is possible to argue that the ‘Join Life’ slogan here is somewhat contradictory as it seems almost impossible that the garment workers lives were valued here in order to produce an item that is that cheap.

Photos: © ZARA Join Life Collection Summer 2017

This newly found sustainable activism has the potential to act as a smoke screen for other ethical and sustainable issues that are still being left unaddressed. H&M is a prime example. Their ‘Conscious’ collection has received a significant amount of positive press, with endorsement from celebrities such as Amber Valletta, yet in February 2016, an H&M factory caught fire in Bangladesh, where four workers died. The immense pressure that these brands face to produce quantities of such scale means that standards slip and safeguards that should be in place, fail those in the early stages of the supply chain.

zara eco fashion
Photos: © ZARA Join Life Collection A/W 2016


However, by lowering some of their sustainable collection prices, H&M, Zara and Topshop help sustain the idea of ethics and the environment in the eyes of the consumer, potentially altering buying habits and hopefully encouraging further debate around the issue.

hm conscious exclusive
Photo: Natalia Vadianova for H&M Conscious Exclusive 2017

Supply chains are so complex that being 100 percent ethical and sustainable is something that is not yet achievable, therefore raising awareness is vital to highlight the complex issues that need to be tackled.

Textile Supply Chain, Illustration by Lianne Middeldorp.

Therefore, any small steps to increase awareness, regardless of the motives behind them, should be supported. As Mhairi McClymont suggests in her article for Good On You, most of the fast fashion brands are beginning to take innovative steps but with significant hurdles still remaining, its up to the consumer to buy fewer clothes from these brands in order to ensure that their business models start to meet certain values.

What do you think about their eco collections? Leave your comment below and join the discussion.