Tuesday 4 December 2012

Zara Comes Clean Over Toxins

It's been a little over a week since Zara were explicitly tagged by Greenpeace in their Toxic Threads campaign as a company with serious issues over toxins in their clothing. They scored poorly in a list of manufacturers whose apparal contained dangerous amounts of pollutants, including some that were known carcinogens. How on earth could the multinational pull itself out of this huge ethical hole?

Turns out it's pretty simple, really. All you have to do is say you're sorry, sign up to Greenpeace's pledge, and agree to fundamentally restructure your entire supply chain to cut all toxins out of the system by 2020. There. Was that so hard?

This is a pretty major landmark for everyone involved. Zara's parent company, Inditex, initially responded to Greenpeace's accusations with a standard boilerplate assertion about their best practices--the sort of thing that fools no-one, especially when documentation as to what those best practices might be is never forthcoming.

What surprised everyone was the abruptness of Zara's volte-face. In less than a week, faced with little more than a few protests in shop windows and outside stores, one of the biggest multinationals on the planet has pledged to completely rejig its manufacturing processes. I'm more than a little gob-smacked. It's interesting to see how the threat of protest and the damage that can cause to a carefully-crafted corporate image can now change the direction in which that company is heading. Outside the remit of this blog, Starbucks has recently pledged to pay a fair amount of corporation tax, based mostly on boycotts and the smackdown taken to their caring, sharing image (not helped by recent revelations that the tax increase would be paid for in part with cuts to staff perks. Note to Starbucks: stop screwing up. I miss my Pike Place, but I'm not going back until you sort yourselves out).

Are we seeing a sea change in the way corporations do business? Has ethical and eco-friendly behaviour become a factor to be dialed into the mission statement? More to the point, does transparency about company practices need to become a part of that structure? Clearly, no-one's buying the sort of pablum that Zara initially put out in response to the Greenpeace report anymore. If you have to respond, it's better to do it quickly and without recourse to bullshot.

I have no doubt that what we've seen from Zara is a hard-nosed business decision. It'll cost them plenty to retool their supply chain, but bad PR will cost them a heck of a lot more in lost business. Their sudden turn-around has suddenly bought them an awful lot of brownie points, and made them look like heroes. We won't know until 2020 whether this pledge is worth more than the iPad it was quickly drafted on, but I would imagine that a lot of companies are looking nervously at their own piles of dirty linen and wondering how soon it'll be before the stink coming off it becomes obvious.

It's a little early to call the Zara decision a tipping point in the way clothing manufacturers do business, tilting towards a more ethical model. But the signs look a little more hopeful than they did this time last week.

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