Stretch Goals: The Fast Fashion Industry Grapples with Sustainability & Change

Research shows that consumers, especially younger buyers, favor brands that have a track record of sustainability. As a result, leaders in many industries are moving in a more environmentally and socially conscious direction. However, sustainability is a complex goal. 

Depending on your business, sustainability initiatives can encompass everything from updating facilities to be greener, examining ingredients used in manufacturing and analyzing supply chain practices to considering how products are packaged and shipped. True sustainability usually requires major structural change.

Can Sustainability Come into Fashion?

The fashion industry, especially “fast fashion” in which goods are made and sold at low prices, has been a target of criticism for years regarding its environmental impact. Mass-produced and cheaply made clothing ends up in landfills at the rate of “one garbage truck per second,” according to the World Resources Institute. One of the major offenders? Inditex, the largest fashion retailer in the world, which arguably pioneered the movement towards cheap, trendy, and short-lived clothing.

Zara, the Spanish fast fashion giant owned by Inditex, recently announced an initiative to overhaul its sustainability practices and reach a variety of environmental and social impact goals by 2025. These include eliminating hazardous chemicals from its supply chain, single-use packaging, fibers made from endangered materials, and landfill waste from manufacturing facilities. The brand’s public commitment to reducing its negative impact on the environment has been met with both enthusiasm and a good deal of healthy skepticism.

The fashion industry faces particular challenges when it comes to sustainability, as consumers have become accustomed to a seasonal trend cycle that encourages waste. For a dominant brand like Zara to commit to systemic change could signal a new direction for fast fashion as a whole. But this is an enormous stretch for a company that is entrenched in wasteful practices. Can Zara change the fundamentals of its industry?

From Problem to Solution

As The Cut reports, “the fact that Zara is publicly discussing sustainability signals a shift in how popular — and profitable — businesses think eco-friendly fashion is. But it’s hard to imagine a brand that epitomizes the problem becoming the solution without fundamentally changing its business model.”

This dilemma isn’t a new one. It calls to mind Gary Hamel’s writing on Stretch Goals, which addresses the foundational problems companies face when they attempt major change. Hamel proposes 25 ways through which organizations can redefine themselves and achieve their “stretch goals,” including major shifts in managerial thinking that democratize information sharing and decision making.

It’s a promising step forward that a major retailer has publicly announced its sustainability goals, but changing the fashion industry will take enormous effort and innovation. Whether Zara is able to achieve these ambitious goals remains to be seen. In the meantime, we’ll be watching with interest to see how the fast fashion industry is able to reinvent itself and provide an example of sustainability and change.

How is the movement toward sustainability impacting your industry? Faced with the need to create fundamental change, what would you do first?

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