Fast-fashion flights: climate crisis fuelled by Zara and other online retailers through transporting tons of items by air

The faster the delivery, the greater the environmental damage: the fast-fashion industry is all about short-lived production cycles, which means it has hundreds of thousands of tons of its products flown around the world. Due to their business model, the Spanish fashion giant Zara and global online retailers like Shein lead the way in this trend. Public Eye has investigated the phenomenon of “airborne fashion” and is calling on companies to phase out this climate-damaging activity.

Clothing, textiles and shoes are not perishable goods. And yet they are transported by plane. The European Union alone imported and exported well over 700,000 tonnes of these goods in 2022. This equates to 7,000 large cargo planes or around 20 cargo flights transporting only fashion items – every day. This is primarily due to an increasingly fast-moving fashion industry, which also uses aircraft as a means of transport. On the one hand, this shrinks delivery times while, on the other, it adds to transport-related emissions: airborne fashion is around fourteen times more harmful to the climate than clothing that is mainly transported by sea. 

It’s hardly surprising then that fashion companies are extremely vague about this practice. Therefore, as part of compiling an exclusive report, Public Eye has scrutinized not only the meagre company information available, but also independent media and detailed customs data. The outcome is that Zara’s parent company Inditex is responsible for by far the highest volume of air freight. Regardless of where they are manufactured, virtually all of Zara & Co.’s products end up in the large distribution centres which the group operates around Zaragoza Airport in northern Spain. There, the products are inspected and packed to be dispatched to stores across the globe. Inditex books around 32 cargo flights a week in Zaragoza, each carrying around 100 tonnes of clothing. That’s well over 1,600 journeys per year.  

Even within the EU, where air freight offers only a small time saving, fashionwear is transported by plane. In 2022, at least 42,658 tonnes were delivered in this way. The data available is less transparent when it comes to airborne fashion that is not sent via distribution centres but directly to customers as individual packages. For example, online retailer Shein transports huge volumes of articles by air from China to private households all over the world. That is why the Chinese fashion group entered into a strategic partnership in July 2022 with China Southern Airlines, whereby cargo planes from this largest airline in Asia shuttle back and forth exclusively for Shein on its main routes between Guangzhou and Los Angeles or Amsterdam. 

Whether we’re talking about Zara, Shein or other fast-fashion retailers: flying tons of clothes around the world is, given the climate crisis, yet another scandal besetting an industry with a notoriously bad environmental and social track record. That’s why Public Eye has launched a petition calling on airborne fashion leader Zara to take its own sustainability goals seriously and stop its cargo flights. 

For more information contact: 

Oliver Classen, Media Director, +41 (0)44 277 79 06,
David Hachfeld, Textiles expert, +41 (0)44 277 79 14,