The Ethics of Fast Fashion: H&M and Zara

fast fashion

Recently we took a look at the ethics behind the fast fashion business model. H&M and Zara are leading a trend towards fast fashion companies making announcements on their action on ethical concerns. But is that even possible? And what are these major players really doing to reduce their impact on people, animals and the environment?

Whatever your conclusions when you read our review of the issues, you can get up to date ethical ratings for Zara, H&M and around 1,000 fashion brands on the free Good On You app.


Of all the five brands investigated in our last article, H&M has the most extensive information on its sustainability and workers’ rights commitments.

fast fashion H&M


In 2014 H&M released its Sustainability Report. It provides detailed information on all aspects of H&M’s supply chain – from raw materials and garment production to transport and sales. The report outlines the company’s initiatives aimed at reducing water waste, increasing the use of sustainable fabrics and improving the treatment of animals involved in the supply chain.

Renewable Energy

H&M has made commitments to the RE100 campaign, which encourages large businesses to commit to 100% renewable power. H&M has already reported a move to 100% renewable electricity in the UK and Netherlands, and 18% renewable energy use globally.

Discover 6 ethical alternatives to H&M


H&M is a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative, alongside the WWF. This initiative is aimed at making cotton farming more sustainable by teaching better practices, reducing water and chemical use, and protecting workers’ rights. The company is also the largest user of organic cotton worldwide. This is great news for the environment, and you can read more about the benefits of organic cotton here.

Reuse and Recycle

H&M has attempted to address the inherent unsustainable nature of fast fashion through a garment collection initiative. By taking unwanted clothes to be recycled or re-sold, fewer items end up in landfill.

fast fashion garments landfill

But it’s not all good news

H&M is the only major fast fashion retailer in Australia that sources garments from Cambodia. Garment workers in Cambodia are paid the minimum wage – which is only 25% of what is calculated to be a living wage.

In 2011, there were reports of mass fainting of workers in a factory that supplied H&M.

Despite its commitments to the Detox campaign, a 2012 Greenpeace investigation found 2 out of 6 H&M clothing samples tested positive for NPEs, which are highly toxic to aquatic organisms.


With over 2000 stores worldwide, this brand is often touted as the pioneer of the fast fashion model. But what is Zara doing to ensure that low prices don’t come at a cost to workers, animals and the environment?

fast fashion zara

Supply Chain Transparency

Zara’s Spanish parent company, Inditex, also produces Pull&Bear and Bershka. Unlike all the other brands, 50% of Inditex’s production takes place close to its head offices in Spain. This makes it a bit easier to monitor companies in the supply chain, including their adherence to the Code of Conduct.


Zara is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, that works to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry. Part of this commitment includes goals to reduce energy usage in the production process and in stores. While not as extensive as H&M, Zara also publishes sustainability goals. These include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% of 2005 levels by 2020.


Zara has pledged to boycott Uzbek cotton, an industry rife with child and adult forced labour. The brand has also joined the Better Cotton Initiative to promote sustainability and best practices for workers and the environment in the cotton industry.

 6 Ethical Brands You’ll Love More Than Zara


When choosing raw materials to produce garments, Zara has committed to consider its impact on biodiversity. Initiatives like seed banks and reforestation can help protect biodiversity and reduce the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry.

But there’s still more work to be done

In 2011 Inditex was accused of using suppliers that forced migrant workers in Brazil to work in slave-like conditions. Despite denying the claim, the company later agreed to compensate the workers. Inditex also made an agreement with Brazilian government to allocate 1.4 million euros to social purposes.

A report by the Clean Clothes Campaign in 2013 found that Inditex still sourced products from Chinese factories that sandblasted jeans, despite promising to end the practice.  Sandblasting involves firing abrasive sand onto denim under high pressure as a cheap and easy way to produce ‘distressed jeans’. This process is known to cause potentially lethal pulmonary disease.

Greenpeace’s Toxic Threads investigation found that 6/10 Zara samples tested positive for NPEs and 2 tested positive for cancer-causing amines released by azo dyes – Zara was the only brand of the 20 assessed to test positive for the latter.

Is this vision of “ethical fast fashion” a long-term trend or just a fad?

H&M and Zara have both made significant commitments to creating a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry. There is still work to do to reduce the impact of the fashion industry and turn policies and commitments into real benefits for the people, animals and environments involved in the supply chains of major retailers.

The commitments already made by H&M and Zara are a start, and continued pressure from consumers will ensure that the move towards ethical fast fashion continues.

Editor’s Note

We’ve given both H&M and Zara an ‘It’s a Start’ rating – 3 out of 5 – in the Good On You app. This balances their extensive list of commitments above, their high ratings in reports like the Australian Fashion Report 2016 and Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index on one hand, and the problematic nature of the fast fashion model with it’s excessive use of resources and the time and price pressures it places on the labour force. For full details on the brands’ ratings for labour, the environment and animals check the Good On You app.

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Original article by Ann Emmanuel. Minor edits and editors notes post publication

Images viaBloombergPeter ChenNeedledRenaissance Innovator

Ann Emmanuel

Author Ann Emmanuel

Ann is a freelance writer passionate about social justice and creative ways of achieving it. She is currently studying International Studies and Law at UNSW (or is at least attempting to).

More posts by Ann Emmanuel

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • shally says:

    App not available in Asia? Pls make it available. Looks like its the only app of its kind.

    • Gordon Renouf Gordon Renouf says:

      Hi Shally
      The Good On You app is available globally including all Asian countries. Search “Good On You” in the App Store or on Google Play. Let us know if you continue to have a problem finding it.
      Best, Gordon

  • Karina de Souza Jensen says:

    I have been trying to be more aware of the clothing I buy and have mostly been thrifting lately. But it would be fantastic to have the app so I could potentially still shop at some first-hand stores! Unfortunately I live in Canada and can’t get the app.. Is there any chance it will be available someday?

  • Tiffany says:

    Good article, Ann. I have been researching ethical fashion and have studied Apparel Marketing and International Trade and Marketing and I can say that it’s great that fast fashion companies, such as Zara and H&M, have been transitioning to creating more sustainable fashion, however, I do not believe that fast fashion can be ethical.

    When you really look at how fast fashion operates, every week, these retailers are receiving “new trends”. I’ve studied forecasting and fast fashion has changed how this works where once we had 2 seasons a year. Now, the fashion industry has shifted to having approximately 52 fashion seasons a year thanks to fast fashion.

    The problem with this picture is that when X amount of products are being produced in sweatshop factories overseas (and there are some here in the US) and they need to be created within a week or two, the garment workers are not being paid an actual living wage or are working in poor conditions. Many factories still secretly employ children and ignore safety conditions to keep the cost low for the fashion brands, which is very sad.

    Is this saying that I do not approve of the start to switching to sustainable and eco-friendly fashion? No, not at all. It’s great that we’re taking care of our environment. That’s what we should be doing, protecting our land, eliminating the chemicals and toxins, and limiting clothing in the landfills. That’s how we’re treating our food and body products. What we put in our bodies is equally as important as what we put on our bodies.

    However, the ethics behind fast fashion — behind protecting and properly caring for the garment workers and farmers — unfortunately will never be there unless the fast fashion brands change their business model.

    That’s when we’ll see more sustainable AND ethical fashion.

    (P.S. I’m not saying that I’m perfect and have never supported these brands because I did. However, once I started studying and researching more about this, I felt that I could no longer support companies that knowingly treat their workers like slaves just to make a profit. As a customer, I don’t want to support people not being able to eat, see their children, live off $15 a month, etc. It’s not morally right. As I previously stated, it’s great to provide more sustainable products, but the people behind the product should also matter.)

    • Ann Ann says:

      Hi Tiffany,

      Thanks for your response. I definitely agree that the underlying business model of these ‘fast fashion’ has to change. It often feels that the ‘corporate social responsibility’ ideas that the companies plug is just a PR campaign, or something akin to charity. But the silver lining to that, I guess is that, at least they are starting to recognise that the way their products are made and how they treat those that are making them is important to consumers.

      That said, I’ve tried to steer away from these companies and look into alternative smaller companies that do claim that their whole business model is different.

      I must say though, I have not studied the area, so I don’t know how hard it might be to change the way larger companies work. But at the very least, we as individuals can try not to contribute to the ridiculous and unsustainable idea of 52 seasons a year!

      Thanks again for the comment – very insightful.

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