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Clash of the Titans: Why are Zalando and Inditex arguing about plastic bags?

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While plastic bags of all kinds are now a rarity on most high streets, they continue to play a major role behind the scenes, particularly in online retail. A fact that is now said to have led to a dispute between the Spanish fashion group Inditex and the Berlin-based online retailer Zalando.

Unnoticed by many customers, most items of clothing are still transported in a protective disposable plastic bag – a so-called polybag – at least on the way from the factories to the retailers. Once there, the plastic, which is supposed to protect against dirt and damage, is often removed and gives way to an “environmentally-friendly” alternative, such as recycled paper or cardboard, before it is shipped to the customer.

What are polybags?

A 2019 study by industry organisation Fashion For Good defines polybags as a clear plastic bag, typically made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE), that protects a garment from dirt, moisture and damage during transport from production facilities to distribution centres and on to retail shops and customers’ homes. According to the report, the carbon footprint of packaging and distribution as part of the fashion industry’s overall value chain is generally relatively low, but apparel companies aiming for zero-waste are increasingly finding that a significant proportion of waste is plastic film and polybags.

This is also the case at Inditex. In 2019, the Spanish fashion group set itself the goal of phasing out deliveries to customers in single-use plastic packaging by the end of the 2023 financial year. The news outlet Bloomberg quoted an Inditex spokesperson as saying that 95 percent of this target has been met at group level, but Zalando, of all businesses, is now set to throw a spanner in the works for the Spanish giant. Zalando is refusing to remove the aforementioned polybags from Inditex products from the Massimo Dutti, Oysho, Bershka and Pull & Bear brands before they are dispatched to the end customer, even after Inditex has asked it to do so.

Shipping despite individual packaging?

When asked by the Berlin online retailer, the situation sounds somewhat different, as Zalando confirmed that the products are shipped with their polybags, yet the reasons seem plausible.

On the one hand, it is part of Zalando’s delivery conditions that partners – including Inditex – deliver every product “retail ready”. This means that the products must be delivered to the Zalando logistics centres with suitable individual packaging so that they can be shipped to customers. Secondly, an internal assessment has shown that it is not advantageous to first use polybags in internal processes and then remove them shortly before shipping to customers, according to a Zalando spokesperson when asked by FashionUnited. Zalando also referred to studies that show that removing polybags would increase the risk of items being so badly damaged during delivery that they can no longer be resold – which is the least sustainable option.

However, Zalando also admitted that single-use plastic is a major hurdle for sustainability. As far as the use of polybags is concerned, the company is in continuous dialogue with its partners in order to evaluate the most sustainable solutions for all parties in the long term. Inditex was not mentioned by name by Zalando, but the different points of view on this topic are recognised and efforts are being made to find common ground. In addition, alternatives are being tested internally, such as a special folding technique for private labels and thinner plastic bags, and the company has already reduced its dependence on single-use plastic in recent years.

Inditex did not want to comment on this when asked by FashionUnited.

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