Stop airborne fashion Zara fuels climate crisis with thousands of tons of airborne fashion
David Hachfeld, Romeo Regenass, 8. November 2023
Oscar García Maceiras is CEO of Inditex, which operates 38 stores in Switzerland with its brands Zara, Zara Home, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Pull&Bear, Oysho and Stradivarius, and 7 online stores, as well as a trading company and a tax optimization company in Fribourg, Switzerland. At the Annual General Meeting in A Coruña, Galicia, in July this year, Oscar García Maceiras was able to present the shareholders with a net profit of € 4.1 billion. Sales of € 32.6 billion resulted in a profit margin in excess of 12.5 percent. Inditex even surpassed Nestlé with this figure, the Swiss group reporting a margin of just under 10 percent for 2022.
The Zara Group presented not only lavish profits, but also ambitious sustainability goals and climate-related promises. This included “more environment-friendly clothing” and “zero net emissions by 2040”. However, the head of the world's second-largest pure-fashion group after Nike failed to mention that Inditex flies tons of clothes around the world – climate crisis or not. Presumably this is part of the 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions which are “hard to eliminate” according to the group’s new sustainability targets, which Inditex wants to “be neutralized or offset via carbon absorption initiatives”.
A splash of green for fast fashion
Inditex is making every effort to present itself as a climate-protection pioneer. Under the slogan “Join Life”, the group is presenting a wide range of sustainability initiatives. For example, in 2021, Zara announced the development of a collection made from recycled carbon emissions and is a member of an initiative promoting clean sea-freight. Inditex likes to report efficiency increases in transport. However, it prefers to remain tight-lipped about the damage caused to the climate by flying its clothes around the globe.
Inditex is considered a pioneer in the fast-fashion industry and boasts about supplying its 5,815 stores worldwide (as of the end of January 2023) with new clothes twice a week. Brands such as Zara or Pull&Bear can design, produce and deliver a new item in three to four weeks, while many of its competitors plan for months to do this. Short production and delivery times make it possible to reduce fashion cycles to just a few weeks, generating the feeling among consumers that they constantly need something new so that they don’t miss a trend.
This provides the basis for Zara’s sales strategy, which a former Inditex manager defined years ago as follows: “We want our customers to realise that they have to buy something they like immediately because it may not be available next week. The in-store stock must always be in short supply so that it always seems the right opportunity to buy.” For example, Inditex apparently manages to sell 85 percent of all items at full price – a high rate in the world of cheap fashion. However, this highly profitable business model is also based on low wages on the production side. As Public Eye calculated in 2019, Zara, for example, probably makes more profit from a hoodie than the total combined earnings of all the workers involved in the production process.
EU Commission wants fast fashion to go out of style
The trend towards fast fashion has consequences. According to a study by the UK Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the production of textiles doubled worldwide between 2000 and 2015 and is expected to more than double again by 2030. This is why the EU Commission is targeting in particular Zara & Co. when it calls for a ban on the destruction of unsold textiles and information about the ecological footprint of the garments. And rightly so. In 2022, Zara’s parent company set a new production record of 621,244 tonnes of textiles. Despite the loss of major business from Russia, the sales volume rose by 10 percent compared to the previous record year in 2021. The EU Commission now wants fast fashion “to go out of style”. In other words, disposable fashion should no longer be in vogue.
Scientific estimates of the share of global CO2 emissions attributable to the fashion industry differ, but there is consensus on an urgent need for action. To ensure that fashion generates sales more quickly and short-lived trends can be better monetized, fast-fashion brands such as Zara rely more heavily than others on air freight, in terms of both the procurement and the shipment of finished garments.
According to a study by the Swiss environmental consultancy Quantis, transportation accounts for an average of only around 3 percent of the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions; the vast majority is accounted for by the production of raw materials and their processing. But this rate increases dramatically in the case of airborne fashion.
The Hamburg-based environmental consultancy Systain has calculated with the Otto Group the CO2 footprint involved in manufacturing a long-sleeved shirt. In terms of the study’s results, transport-related greenhouse gas emissions produced by a garment transported by air are around 14 times higher than those of an item which has mostly been transported by sea. The long-sleeved shirt has travelled a long way: from the cotton grown in the United States to yarn production, dyeing and sewing in Bangladesh, and then as a finished product transported by ship to Germany before delivery to the customer’s door.
This clocks up more than 35,000 kilometres – equivalent to travelling almost once around the world. Despite this distance, transportation accounts for only 3 percent of CO2 emissions. If, on the other hand, the finished garment were to come to Europe by plane, the share accounted for by transportation would rise to a remarkable 28 percent (see infographic). It’s hardly surprising then that the share of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the Zara Group is significantly higher than the three percent rate that applies across the industry. In 2021, the figure was 10.6 percent, according to the annual report, while in 2022, even after the discontinuation of its business in Russia, it was still above eight percent.
1,600 flights per year for Inditex to Zaragoza alone
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. There, the garments are ironed, inspected and packed, to be dispatched to stores across the globe.
According to their 2022 Annual Report, around half of production took place in North Africa, Turkey and the Iberian Peninsula, with the remainder in more remote countries (Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Cambodia, Pakistan and Vietnam). Many clothes sold in countries that Inditex supplies by air (which include numerous important markets – see world maps infographics) have seen the inside of the plane’s cargo hold twice. Compared to other fashion brands, this means that transportation causes significantly more harm to the climate.
The flagship of this business model is the “Plaza” central logistics centre near Zaragoza airport, which operates in four shifts, 360 days a year. “Every item of women’s clothing that Inditex sells anywhere in the world passes through Plaza,” according to a video from local TV station Aragón TV. The video shows an Emirates Skycargo freight plane being loaded with 37 huge pallets of Inditex goods bound for Dubai. Inditex has a hub there, where parts of the cargo are prepared for onward flights bound for Australia and destinations in Asia. The Inditex employee in charge of air freight says that, in Zaragoza, around 32 cargo flights are handled for Inditex every week, with around 100 tonnes of clothes on board. That’s well over 1,600 aircraft journeys per year.
As a result, Zaragoza rose to number two among Spain’s cargo airports in 2019. Inditex accounted for 90 percent of the total volume of 183,000 tonnes, according to the regional economic development agency. In 2022, the volume dropped by a good 34 percent after reaching a record high of 194,000 tonnes in 2021, as a result of the war in Ukraine, but probably also because Inditex had closed its 502 stores and online store in Russia, its biggest market after Spain. Before this, Inditex had sent two cargo jumbos from the Russian airline AirBridgeCargo to Moscow every week.
Not everything is transported by plane. Anything that can reach its stores overland from Zaragoza within 36 hours is more likely to be transported by large trucks. This means that stores and online stores in western and central Europe are supplied to some extent by road.
Tons of fashion items transported by plane within the EU
But 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 by plane (as goods are not cleared through customs within the EU, these statistics are incomplete). One salient statistic is that by far the largest share of these air journeys comes from Spain – 64 percent or 27,392 tonnes to be precise. The main shipper in this case is likely to be Inditex. The main destinations were Greece with 8,034 tonnes and Poland with 5,132 tonnes. Not only does the Zara Group have numerous stores in both countries, but the clothes cannot reach the stores there overland within the 36-hour time-frame desired by Inditex, due to the distance. Based on data from airport operator Aena, these markets are not likely to be served by cargo planes from Zaragoza, but the goods can be transported on passenger flights from Madrid and Barcelona, where Inditex is also a major cargo customer. At Barcelona Airport, the fashion industry has been responsible for the largest cargo volumes for years.
Inditex has recently started using freight trains, running from Sète in the south of France to Poznan in Poland, to deliver to the warehouse used to receive online orders in central Europe. On the return journey, IKEA uses the same train composition to transport furniture made in Poland to Spain. This saves a total of 12,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, which is a good start, but only a drop in the ocean.
Inditex airborne fashion from Bangladesh
In 2022, the Group awarded orders worth €1.25 billion to 170 factories in Bangladesh. This information comes from a letter sent by the head of Inditex Bangladesh to a local authority, which was published by the local financial portal “The Finance Today”. According to customs data, Inditex has delivered at least 16 percent of this volume to Dhaka airport as air freight. From January to August 2023, the figure even reached 22.8 percent.
But that’s not all. According to a trade magazine, Inditex also transports ready-made garments by truck to Delhi, India, from where they are flown to Zaragoza on Atlas Air cargo jumbos. The reason for this is apparently recurring capacity problems at Dhaka Airport, where ready-made garments account for 85 percent of cargo volumes. Inditex flexes its negotiating muscles in these situations, buying up to 70 percent of the cargo capacity of Dhaka Airport, a fact that Inditex has not refuted.
The true absurdity of Inditex airborne fashion is revealed by taking a look at the pricing, which is also evident from the customs data. A major supplier in Bangladesh with around 6,000 employees mainly manufactures women’s T-shirts for Zara, producing from January to August of this year – according to customs data – almost 10 million items. A quarter of them arrived in Spain by air, often via Doha or Dubai.
Inditex only pays this supplier around CHF 1.90 (USD 2.10) per shirt. If large volumes of clothing are shipped by sea, the transport costs per garment are usually only a few pennies! Unlike air freight, which is expensive. Due to the pandemic, prices have fluctuated strongly in recent years, with the minimum cost likely to be CHF 1.50 per kilo. However, that would only represent the cost from Bangladesh to Spain. If the goods were flown from there to a US branch, for example, the freight costs would continue to rise.
A popular argument used to justify air freight is the high value of the goods. But according to data from the Barcelona tax office, airborne fashion has a value of just under € 18 per kilo when imported, which rises to € 41.50 when exported. This is in stark contrast to pharmaceuticals and chemicals, where the export value in Barcelona is just under € 120.
Even though, as a massive customer of the cargo airlines, Inditex certainly receives discounts, the additional air transport costs per shirt are likely to be at least CHF 0.20 to 0.40. By way of comparison, the prices paid by Inditex and other retailers in Bangladesh are so paltry that, after deducting material and energy costs of around 70 percent, there is hardly anything left to distribute. The latest annual report from the above-mentioned supplier also shows that only 18 percent of revenues, i.e. just CHF 0.34 for a typical Zara shirt, are included as direct wage costs.
The typical poverty wage of a seamstress in Bangladesh is currently the equivalent of CHF 80 – per month! At the time of writing, workers in Gazipur and Dhaka are demanding an increase in the minimum wage to CHF 190. But employers are obstructing this, also by referring to the low purchase prices being paid by the international brand companies. If Zara and Co. were to save the completely unnecessary air freight costs and, therefore, pay the manufacturers more, there would be significantly more money available in the coffers to pay better wages. However, to ensure that all wages provided at least a living wage, a more comprehensive redistribution of value-added gains along the supply chain would be needed.
Airborne fashion increases pressure on workers
Fast fashion requires a great deal of flexibility from suppliers: price pressure is increasing, larger orders are being split into numerous small ones, and expected delivery times are shrinking to a few weeks. This increases the time pressure in the factories, which is being felt by workers. Larger orders with longer lead times are usually better for factories and the workforce because they provide planning security and allow working hours to be distributed evenly. The shorter the deadlines, the more part-orders are outsourced to subcontractors, and more overtime is scheduled.
Flying fast-fashion items makes it more likely for large orders to be split into sub-orders. Companies then first look at how popular the products are with customers. Those that are doing well are re-ordered quickly and, if there is an urgent demand, they are delivered by plane. If an item doesn’t do well, no follow-up orders will be placed.
This production model is particularly extreme at ultra-fast fashion companies like Shein, where orders for 100 to 150 garments are common and factories are expected to be able to resupply in a few days. This has resulted in 75-hour weeks for seamsters/seamstresses, as we showed in a report from 2021.
Where companies such as Inditex and Shein plan to use air freight from the outset, they organize the required capacities themselves. In other cases, unfair contractual conditions can lead to unplanned air transportation. Some fashion companies negotiate such short delivery times that there is practically no buffer time to deal with further requests for changes after sample inspection, when production release is delayed or when the necessary material is not made available on time. The terms of delivery specified by the purchasers often stipulate high contractual penalties that are imposed as soon as the agreed delivery window is exceeded (see example highlighted below). To avoid losing even more money, suppliers under pressure switch to air freight at their own expense.
“If for any reason [!] Manufacturer does not comply with Company’s On-Board Delivery Date, Company may at its option either approve a revised delivery schedule, require air freight shipment at Manufacturer’s expense, or cancel a Purchase Order without liability on the part of Company to Manufacturer.”
Extract from a manufacturing contract published anonymously in 2019 by Human Rights Watch in the report “Paying for a Bus Ticket and Expecting to Fly”.
Inditex also generates a lot of air traffic bound for the American continent. The air route with the largest volume is likely to be the one to Mexico City. With 383 stores in 2022 Mexico is among Inditex’s top three markets and operating, at the same time, as the hub for South America. “Five freighters loaded with fashion items, accessories and store equipment fly to the Mexican capital every week on behalf of Inditex,” Lufthansa Cargo proudly wrote in a blog about its partner Inditex back in 2016. “In addition, substantial quantities are transported to this growth market in the cargo holds on passenger aircraft,” it says. With a volume of 18,565 tonnes, Mexico was the largest export destination from Zaragoza Airport in 2022, followed by Qatar and the US.
Shein dispatches tons of packages by air
The availability of data is poor when it comes to airborne fashion that is sent, not to distribution centres, but directly to customers in the form of individual packages. For example, online retailer Shein sends huge volumes of fashion items directly from China by air to private households all over the world, but unfortunately the trade statistics are vague for small goods shipments.
In November 2021, Public Eye published a feature story on Shein about working conditions in production. Our research at the time had shown that Shein was dispatching tons of packages from China by plane. As the RTS television station in French-speaking Switzerland revealed in May of this year, using GPS tracking, returns that arrive in China by ship are also sent to new customers by plane. According to Swiss trade statistics, nearly a third of the almost eight tonnes of fashion items that arrive in Switzerland by plane come from China.
Four cargo planes operated by China Southern Airlines shuttle back and forth on Shein’s main routes between Guangzhou and Los Angeles and Guangzhou and Amsterdam or London. In July 2022, the airline, the largest in Asia, celebrated a new strategic partnership with Shein aimed at increasing its flight capacity. One surprise finding from our research shows that Shein can also do things differently. To equip its new EU logistics centre in Poland, the company also delivers some products by train from China. But the obsession with speed makes Shein continue to stick to direct shipping by air freight. We questioned Shein about its use of air freight, but received no reply.
Empty words rather than measures to reduce air freight
Inditex seems to want to cover up the problem of climate-damaging air transportation. In its 2022 annual report, the company only vaguely mentions a “review of transport traffic and routes” and efforts to “seek transport alternatives” with regard to emissions. A presentation by the Zara Group's Head of Sustainability in February 2023 at an industry summit in Barcelona had the same thrust, which was that air freight was not an issue. The measures being adopted to reduce the ecological footprint focus on other areas of the value chain, such as the reduction in water consumption.
In response to the extensive list of questions that we sent Inditex, the Group gave verbose answers, but without specifically addressing our questions. Above all, Inditex is still uttering the refrain about its well-known climate target of “net zero by 2040”. In the transport sector, the focus is on shorter routes, achieving maximum loading efficiency and running a new, lower-emission fleet. In addition, most transport operations would be undertaken by ship or truck.
On the other hand, the reply e-mail is sketchy on details about air freight, including references to several projects to promote measures to decarbonize the air cargo industry, develop alternative fuels and maximise aircraft efficiency. Inditex does not specify any measurable air freight targets. Air freight is “mostly” reserved for intercontinental transportation when alternatives such as rail and road transport are considered to be out of the question and sea freight would take too long. “Passenger flights account for the largest share of air freight and, in 2022, the use of air freight was reduced by 25 percent.” However, the climate doesn’t make any distinction: a flight is a flight. Inditex did not comment on the air freight volumes and costs or on the prices paid to suppliers in Bangladesh.
Inditex’s response reflects the fact that the air cargo industry is relying primarily on technical innovation in tackling the climate crisis. Minimal improvements are made by using slightly more efficient aircraft. The rest is based on hope, because technical innovations, such as fuels from renewable energy sources, do not yet exist or at least not on an industrial scale. That's why the industry’s focus is currently on non-binding initiatives and offset projects such as CORSIA, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not see this as a suitable instrument, as it writes in its sixth report: “By its nature, CORSIA does not lead to a reduction in in-sector emissions from aviation since the programme deals mostly in approved offsets. At its best, CORSIA is a transition arrangement to allow aviation to reduce its impact in a more meaningful way later.”
In a nutshell, for at least as long as the hoped-for technical innovation is not available, it would be much more expedient to drastically reduce the volume of air freight and only transport by plane really important items, such as medicines, express airmail, spare parts etc. Fashion is definitely not included among these items. And it would continue to be available in stores even without the use of air freight. Only fast fashion trends would take a few weeks longer to appear in shop windows. This kind of slow-down would not produce a loss, but an opportunity for more conscious consumption and more sustainable designs.
Whether we’re talking about Zara, Shein or other retailers, flying fashion items halfway around the world is imposing a completely unnecessary burden on our environment in view of the climate crisis.
Quite simply, a stop must be put to airborne fashion.