Pull & Bear’s high waist jeans with yoke detail appear to be somewhat environmentally friendly. However, they are one product in a seemingly endless portfolio of products, designed to encourage consumers to buy more. Not only is this extremely problematic for the environment, but it also has severe effects on people working along the supply chain, especially in supplier countries desperate for work. This is a problem for the entire fashion industry. To actually make fashion sustainable, consumers everywhere should ask themselves: do I really need this?
The Pull & Bear website states that these particular jeans are made of 100% cotton. This means that the denim fabric used to make the jeans is not formed of different types of fibres, such as polyester or metals. In theory, this facilitates recycling by enabling the separation of fibres without reducing the quality of the material. Cotton cultivation uses about 2.5% of the worlds arable land, accounts for 16% of pesticides used globally and uses copious fertilisers. These chemicals compromise the quality of the soil and cause water toxicity when discharged into waterways. Cotton cultivation mostly takes place in water scarce countries, which is problematic because it consumes huge amounts of freshwater. These jeans are a Join Life product. Join Life is part the Inditex (the parent company) sustainability programme. These products are made using more environmentally friendly materials, meaning they use less energy, water and natural resources. As part of Join Life there use several types of more “environmentally friendly” cotton, namely REFOBRA Lyocell, conventional recycled textile and Tencell Lyocell. The website, however, does not go into any details about what type of cotton they use, how it is sourced or how these jeans qualify as Join Life. There is also no information about the materials used for the zipper, buttons or thread.
They have an Animal Welfare policy aligned with the Five Freedoms. These include freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury or disease, fear and distress and be able to express normal behaviour. Pull & Bear do not use fur, angora or exotic animal skin for any of their products. Good On You (a clothing rating website) gave Pull & Bear a 2/5 rating for animals because it does use leather, down and exotic animal hair and provides no evidence to show that it traces animal products to the first stage of production.
With regards to the packaging, this depends on whether they are purchased in-store or online. For in-store purchases, they claim to use 100% recycled plastic bags that are thicker than 50 microns to encourage reuse. Encouragingly, they say that they are working to replace them with paper bags. Less encouragingly, they do not state that they wish to reduce the number of bags they sell overall. There is no mention of what kind of material they use for their tags, they simply state that all their furnishings and paper products are FSC and PEFC certified (these certifications supposedly guarantee paper and wood products from sustainably managed forests, but this is not always guarantee, and it has been said that the FSC contributes to greenwashing and acts as a cover for illegal timber trafficking). Obviously, then, this is not enough. For online purchases, the packaging is recycled material.
According to the Pull & Bear website their garments are produced following “the most stringent health, safety, environmental and social sustainability standards”. They claim to carry out quality controls at every stage of the supply chain. In the last financial year, they say that they analysed over 890,000 products and performed 56,000 inspections. I was unable to find any information about what their product analysis and inspections involve or what their results were. With regards to their stores, their website boasts that they programme the lights, heating and air conditioning to meet the store needs, enabling them to control their consumption of energy and water, thereby reducing CO2 emissions. They also say that they are working to reduce the impacts of their transport networks. I was unable to find any details on how and what their progress is. Evidence is also lacking regarding actions taken to reduce waste, chemical and hazardous chemicals etc.
The Business of Fashion (BoF) 2021 Sustainability Index scored Inditex 57% in reducing GHG emissions, 33% in reducing water use and eliminating harmful chemical, 33% in shifting to regenerative and circular materials, 51% in protecting workers rights, 25% in minimising waste and establishing circular business models, with an overall score of 41%. A common complaint about Inditex is the lack of information regarding progress made towards publicly announced sustainability targets. Good On You gave Pull & Bear 2/5 for planet and 2/5 for people because of the lack of evidence. Let’s now focus on the workers and suppliers. Half of the final stage of the production takes place in Spain, where the risk for labour abuses is medium-low. The rest occurs in supplier countries, which include Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Morocco and Turkey. Though they claim to have a strict Code of Conduct, Human Rights Policy, Corporate Citizenship Policy, Integrity Policy and the Workers at the Centre 2019-2022 strategy for social management, there is no evidence that they ensure that a living wage is paid to workers in their supply chain. BoF even points out that, at this point in time, having a corporate policy for workers’ rights is now considered a baseline. So, what do these claims mean? Nothing. They’re theoretically nice, but without evidence they mean nothing.
Why is this a problem? Pull & Bear products are very cheap. To produce an item of clothing, one needs to source the primary materials (either from a farm or recycling centre), process the materials, turn them into fabrics, assemble the product, finalise it, send it to distribution centres, and then sell it. All this occurs on a global scale and involves hundreds, if not thousands of people. This begs the question: how are products so cheap? The jeans in question cost £29.99, hardly enough to cover the cost of sustainable production. By comparison, Nudie Jeans (considered by Vogue to be one of the best sustainable jean brands) retails at £120. What does this mean? Pull & Bear is a fast fashion brand. Their low prices encourage greater purchasing, which, in turn, incite lower product life spans and greater production. Fakir Fashion (a Bangladesh company that supplies knitwear to Pull & Bear) employs 12,000 people and produces up to 200,000 items per day during peak fashion cycles. According to the CEO, over the past 20 years, brands have demanded that Bangladesh lower its prices, reduce order time and improve their standards, without taking on the expense themselves. Workers are left with low wages, working low hours and having to face the environmental consequences of a country that cuts corners to maintain industrial competitiveness. Personally, without any evidence to the contrary, this severely undermines most sustainability claims made by the brand.
Pull & Bear is part of brand portfolio owned by Spanish Inditex, which also include Zara, Zara Home, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius, Oysho and Uterqüe. Let’s look at some of their good qualities. They are part of the new Circular Fashion Partnership initiative, which seeks to facilitate collaboration between brands, manufacturers and recyclers in Bangladesh (yay!). They claim to promote employment in Spain and community development in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Their website says that since 2002 they have collaborated with NGO Entreculturas to establish education programmes in 14 regions. It also states that they work with universities to further research in the social field. They say they create local working spaces (clusters) for cooperation and dialogue and that they work with various organisations to promote labour rights (including UN Global Compact and Sustainable Fashion Apparel). Their 2020 Annual Report (which is over 600 pages) reports 703 social initiatives, 3.3 million direct beneficiaries, €71.8 million in social programmes and 4.1 million items donated for social causes. They even made their logistics available in Spain for health equipment transport during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is all fantastic, but they don’t go into any sort of detail about where, what, why, how etc. I was unable to find out how the so-called “beneficiaries” benefitted or how they perceived these efforts.
Nevertheless, this is all contrasted by the fact that Pull & Bear is a fast fashion brand. Fast fashion = huge production = lots of waste. In the UK alone, people send 235 million items of clothing to landfill each year (the UK only has about 67 million inhabitants). The UK also consumes 26.7kg of clothing per head. The environmental effects of fast fashion are terrible. 700,000 fibres are released in a single domestic wash (product durability anyone?). In 2015 the global fashion industry produced 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions. It is even estimated that in the full lifetime of a single pair of 501 Levi jeans 3,781 litres of water are used. Pull & Bear most definitely contributes to this because the annual production volume of all the Inditex brands is 1.6 billion items of clothing.
Despite claims of sustainability and even circularity, Pull & Bear never mentions anything about slowing down consumer consumption. One could make the argument that, as a profit-seeking company, wanting to slow down sales would bring their business to a slow and painful death. However, the CEO of the aforementioned Fakir Fashion openly stated that the greatest danger to the fashion industry is not a decrease in sales, but a failure to slow down consumption. According to said CEO, if the price of a garment went up by even 2 cents, thereby somewhat reducing demand, he would be able to pay his workers 2 extra days pay each month, produce fewer items of clothing and improve the quality of products and working conditions. In a country like Bangladesh (where 1/3 of manufacturing jobs and 85% of exports come from fashion and a 1/5 of residents live below the poverty line) this could mean less factories and unemployment. But it could also mean better factories that can afford to pay their workers living wage and pollute less.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, (2017, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications).