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Zara’s Marta Ortega and H&M’s Helena Helmersson could mark a changing of the guard as fashion faces environmental scrutiny

October 7, 2022, 12:59 PM UTC
Inditex founder Amancio Ortega (left) and Marta Ortega
fotopress/Getty Images

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Fortune correspondent Vivienne Walt here, filling in for Emma. French author Annie Ernaux wins the Nobel Prize in literature, a Southwest Airlines pilot is suing over sexual misconduct, and how Zara’s new leader will helm the fast-fashion brand in the era of sustainability.

– Race to sustainability. If you ever find yourself on the Oscars red carpet, as I have as a journalist, you’ll find the press repeatedly barking out one phrase to passing Hollywood stars: “Who are you wearing?”

It’s a tricky question these days, with an often controversial answer. That was evident when I spent two days inside the sprawling headquarters of Zara—the world’s biggest fashion retailer—on the windswept coast of northwest Spain for Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women issue. 

For me, it was a return visit. Exactly 10 years ago, I traveled to this small Galician city of La Coruña for Fortune to profile Amancio Ortega, the iconic founder of Zara and its giant parent company Inditex. A lot has changed since then. Zara has rocketed in size and, by some estimates, makes a mammoth 450 million items a year. And Amancio, now 86, no longer runs his $33-billion empire. He handed the reins last April to his youngest daughter Marta, 38, and named her nonexecutive chairperson.

Inditex founder Amancio Ortega (left) and Marta Ortega
fotopress/Getty Images

The young Ortega’s ascent came just two years after Inditex’s nearest competitor, Sweden’s H&M, anointed Helena Helmersson as its first woman CEO. With the breaking of the proverbial glass ceiling at the two biggest fast-fashion giants, there seemed to be a fundamental power shift for the $1.7-trillion industry.

But does a shift in gender mean a shift in strategy? That question seems increasingly urgent. Marta and Helena (as everyone I interviewed referred to them) sit at the vortex of global crises—climate, inequality, and human rights—which were barely mentioned when I visited Inditex a decade ago.

As our Zara story shows, the fashion industry consumes vast quantities of fossil fuels, land, and water and generates significant carbon emissions. Factory accidents and abuse in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan have highlighted ultra-low wages and free-for-all conditions. And since Zara and H&M roll out never-ending, affordable new designs, we’re tossing out our clothes more frequently, with disastrous consequences: The World Bank estimates about 87% of all fashion is incinerated or landfilled.

It’s tempting to think that as women, Ortega and Helmersson will shake up a business dominated by women, from factory workers to sales assistants, customers, and even runway models. “It is the same supply chain, whether you are sitting in your shitty, miserable flooded hole in Pakistan, or in the glossy headquarters,” says Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator of the fashion-activist NGO Clean Clothes Campaign in Amsterdam. “They are all women workers.”

Zara was keen to show me how the company is now racing to transform fashion. It’s experimenting with lab-made, zero-carbon materials that imitate silk and cotton and tweaking A.I. algorithms that pinpoint what customers want, so they can eliminate wasteful output. “We’re working so hard on new business models,” Inditex’s head of circularity Germán García Ibáñez said over coffee. He reckons that the industry will be drastically transformed within a decade—perhaps partly thanks to Marta.

But biology only goes so far. Just as relevant is executives’ life experience. Take the Ortegas. Amancio grew up in deep poverty, beginning work at 14 to help feed the family. His daughter, by contrast, is a billionaire heiress schooled in Switzerland and London with a circle of wealthy celeb friends.

And there is another crucial factor too: our own shopping habits. As anxious as we are about global warming and polluted oceans, we nonetheless delight in wandering into Zara stores, bedazzled by the latest clothes, which change twice a week and offer a quick pick-me-up. That business model will remain in place. And until customers truly stop buying vast amounts of fashion, says Deutsche Bank retail analyst Adam Cochrane, “you are playing around the edges.”

Change won’t come easy—even with women like Marta Ortega and Helena Helmersson in power. “I would like to hope it brings a different possibility,” Zeldenrust says. “But at the moment, I see no evidence.”

Read my full feature here.

Vivienne Walt

The Broadsheet is Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women. Today’s edition was curated by Paige McGlauflin. Subscribe here.


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