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Fashion’s plastics problem starts from your polyester blouse

The biggest contributor to fashion’s rising carbon footprint is that people are buying more clothes more frequently

A Zara store in Barcelona, Spain
A Zara store in Barcelona, Spain (REUTERS)

Until the rise of online retail, you might have been forgiven for thinking that all apparel was shipped in burlap sacks. Those wanting their garment spending to be sustainable these days can take comfort in reusable wooden hangers, paper shopping bags, and recycled fibres. The only glimpse of plastic in many fashion stores is the electronic equipment at the checkout.

Below that surface, however, the fashion industry is built on a mountain of artificial textiles. Global production of cotton and wool has barely increased since the early 1990s. Manufactured and synthetic fibers such as viscose, nylon and, above all, polyester have roughly tripled.

That contradiction lies behind the sales-season fight between two of the rag trade’s biggest players. Inditex SA, the Spanish company that owns Zara, is at a stalemate in a battle over plastics with one of its biggest distributors, German online fashion giant Zalando SE, Bloomberg News reported last month.

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Inditex is trying to cut its emissions in half by 2030 and wants to eliminate single-use plastics this year, but Zalando is balking at demands to stop distributing its clothing in polybags. These synthetic sacks are ubiquitous in the fashion trade, where they’re used to prevent items getting damaged on the way from the factory to the consumer. Bricks and mortar retailers typically remove them before products are laid out in stores, so until recently you’d have been forgiven for not knowing they exist. It’s only the rise of online retailers searching for quicker, cheaper ways of doing business that’s forced them into customers’ consciousness.

Who’s right? Inditex is to be commended for its efforts to improve its carbon footprint—but Zalando isn’t wrong to smell hypocrisy in this crusade. Packaging of every type comprises only about 5% of the carbon footprint of Inditex competitor Hennes & Mauritz AB, according to its 2014 sustainability report, the last time it put a number on it. That figure is unlikely to be very different at Zara, or to have changed much since. More than 70% of H&M’s total carbon footprint comes from producing the clothing itself, according to its 2020 report, with about 8% coming from non-garment goods including packaging.

Polybags are popular because they stop all those emissions going to waste when moisture or dirt spoils clothing en route to the consumer. Patagonia, another climate-focused retailer, decided to keep using polybags in 2014 after an internal study found 30% of items that weren’t bagged became damaged to the point they were un-sellable. Inditex itself isn’t planning to eliminate plastics, either—instead, it’s promising to reuse and recycle all its bags.

The Zara owner isn’t the best-placed company to cast the first stone. The biggest contributor to fashion’s rising carbon footprint is that we’re buying more clothes more frequently. Until the recent debut of online giants Shein and Temu, there was no company on the planet that had done more to advance that trend than Inditex itself.

Its fast-fashion philosophy focuses on matching catwalk trends within weeks, using rapid stock changes and cheap materials that are easier to throw away than repair. Zara offers dozens of new collections every year, compared to an average of two among European apparel companies in 2000. Per-capita production of textile fibers rose 82% between 1995 and 2018 as fast fashion rose to prominence, inducing consumers to view clothes as disposable.

It’s particularly ironic that the fight between Inditex and Zalando should be breaking out into the open now. The post-Christmas sales season has long been an emblem of the industry’s struggles with sustainability. Even before fast fashion encouraged consumers to fill their wardrobes with surplus clothes, retailers were filling their stores with excess inventory that needed to be cleared out in an orgy of discounting.

Across the industry, only about 40% of clothing is retailed at full price, with half of the remainder getting marked down and the rest never being sold at all. Reducing that wastage would do far more to cut carbon footprints than getting into fights with distributors to sustain the pretense that you don’t use polybags.

Fast fashion is often treated as the scapegoat for all the rag trade’s problems. That’s not entirely fair. Our mountain of clothing waste would probably be markedly smaller if Inditex’s competitors could match its legendarily efficient just-in-time supply chain. Inventory turnover, a measure of how much stock is sitting around on shelves unsold, is markedly better than at its major rivals.

Still, the best way to encourage a more sustainable garment industry will come from everyone buying a smaller amount of higher-quality apparel which can be mended rather than thrown away. In a world where more than half of clothes are made from cheap polyester, the disposable plastics you wear are a far bigger problem than the bags they’ve been delivered in.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

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