Inditex has been burnishing its sustainability credentials for a while now.
Although the Spanish conglomerate, which owns high-street juggernaut Zara, has been widely credited—as well as decried—for honing the quick-response, low-cost manufacturing system we know today as “fast fashion,” it’s not unaware of its reputation of being bad for the planet, and attempts at rehabilitation have been plentiful.
Among them? A Zara label-within-a-label called Join Life that purports to incorporate eco-friendly raw materials and processes.
According to its latest annual report, Zara produced 136 million Join Life garments in 2018—a little over 9 percent of the 1.5 billion items of clothing Inditex produced that same year. (Zara makes up roughly 70 percent of Inditex’s business, which also includes Bershka, Massimo Dutti and Pull&Bear.)
It was toward one of these Join Life garments that Swiss investigative group Public Eye turned its attention. The nonprofit, which represents the Clean Clothes Campaign in Switzerland, picked up a hoodie—emblazoned with the words “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me,” in reference to the classic Aretha Franklin chart-topper—and followed it “down the supply chain.” A tag on the garment stated a fiber composition of 84 percent “organically grown” cotton and 16 percent polyester.
After purchasing the hoodie for 45.90 Swiss francs ($45.95), Public Eye said it engaged in what amounted to a game of telephone with Inditex employees, who reportedly took months to respond to queries.
Eventually, Inditex provided the names of three Turkish factories where the fabric for the garment was produced, where the pieces were cut and sewn together and where the finished hoodie was printed.
From there, investigators were able to determine that the workers who cut and sewed the garment were only paid nine Turkish lira ($1.68) for the job. The firm that printed the slogan was paid only 9 cents per print.
At the Izmir factory that assembled the hoodie, workers earn between 2,000 and 2,500 Turkish lira ($341 to $429) per month, or a third of what the Clean Clothes Campaign estimates would result in a living wage, Public Eye said. This runs contrary to Inditex’s own code of conduct, which states that suppliers should pay salaries “enough to meet at least the basic needs of workers and their families and any other which might be considered as reasonable additional needs.”
At least one of the factories works round the clock, divided into only two shifts, in order to meet the quantities (and aggressive pricing”) Inditex demands.
Together with partners from the Clean Clothes Campaign, Public Eye calculated that Inditex makes 4.20 euros ($4.62) per full-priced hoodie—or twice as much as the 2.08 euros ($2.29) “all the people involved its production earn, from the cotton fields in India, to the spinning mill in Kayseri in central Turkey, to the factories in Izmir.” At the same time, paying only 3.62 euros ($3.98) more per article would be able to guarantee a living wage for everyone involved in the production chain, Public Eye said.
And it shouldn’t be too difficult, the group said. The world’s largest apparel retailer by revenue, Inditex made a record net profit of 3.44 billion euros ($3.78 billion) in 2018, which means it can “start respecting the rights of the people who contribute to its success by finally starting to pay purchase prices that guarantee them a living wage.”
Inditex, for its part, denies the accuracy of Public Eye’s investigation.
“Public Eye’s report is based on erroneous premises and inaccurate reporting,” a spokesperson said in a statement to Quartz, noting that the group’s figures are based on speculation and are “simply inaccurate.”
Inditex’s sourcing prices are “well above the one used in the report,” the spokesperson added. Furthermore, workers at the factories are “paid more than the amounts mentioned in Public Eye’s report.”
Inditex also denounced the idea of 24-hour operations with just two shifts, calling it unacceptable under its code of conduct. “If we were ever to find evidence of the working patterns you describe, a corrective action plan would be put in place immediately,” a spokesperson said.
But Public Eye noted that Inditex’s response to its own inquiries has been evasive and unclear. Neither has the group been persuaded of Inditex chairman Pablo Isla’s claims of “transparency, traceability and sustainability.”
“Our conclusion: even for Zara’s ‘Join Life’ line, which is supposed to be particularly sustainable, the price pressure on producers is so immense that ultimately those who pay the highest price for Inditex’s profit are the people who make the business possible in the first place—the factory workers,” Public Eye said.