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It's not easy being green

7 months ago
David Surdam
Rack of multi-colored shirts

Companies seeking to project themselves as eco-friendly may find themselves having their very raison d’etre questioned. Zara, a well-known retailer renowned for its rapid responses to changes in fashion, recently announced its plans to reduce its negative impact on the environment.

Manufacturers of inexpensive, ready-to-wear clothing have allowed Americans to fill closets full of clothes. Such stores as Forever 21 and H&M sell very inexpensive, almost throw-away, clothes that afford younger people the opportunity to wear a variety of outfits.

Kermit the Frog famously sang ‘It’s not easy being green.’ His wisdom is sorely needed these days.

For some environmental experts, Zara’s business model is a problem. The reality is that producing the raw materials for clothes damages the environment in many different ways. Because these clothes are intended to be discarded quickly, the sheer volume produced, even under the best ecological practices, creates substantial environmental damage. The company’s policy of launching thousands of new designs yearly may be inherently undesirable from an environmental perspective.

Besides the retailer, however, what about consumers? Each of us has a responsibility to consider the environmental impact associated with our wardrobe. Should we opt for a relatively small number of high-quality items instead of disposable, trendy clothes? Even this decision is fraught with environmental ramifications. How we care for our clothes matters, as detergents, hot water, and, ultimately, disposal affect the environment. Knowing the environmental effects of our daily decisions is daunting.

There is one almost surefire way to reduce our adverse environmental impact: use less. We should carefully consider whether we need an additional commodity. Yes, if we all reduce our purchases of goods, there will probably be a negative economic effect. Zara is to be commended for at least taking steps to reduce its ecological impact.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.

Author

Headshot of David Surdam

David Surdam

David Surdam received his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago. His dissertation, "Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War," was supervised by Nobel-Prize Winner, Robert Fogel. Professor Surdam has taught at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Loyola University of Chicago, and the University of Oregon.

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Comments

Submitted by Jordan Rempe on
I found this post to be very interesting. I've personally researched Zara during my time abroad and know a lot about how environmentally unfriendly their practices of fast fashion are. The idea is to have new clothes in their stores as much as once a week, to keep consumers coming back to see what's new and purchase it. From a marketing perspective, this is genius because it gets people coming into a store almost as often as one would go to the grocery store! However, I do believe it is the company's responsibility, ethically, to be aware of what resources/how they are affecting the environment. I personally would rather have a small number of good quality clothes over a large number of disposable clothes. It seems my parents are always commenting on how much better quality their jeans and other clothing products were 20 years ago as compared to now. Additionally, as consumers, we have a great impact on the market. Consumers carry the responsibility of being informed about the products/company they are buying from.

Submitted by Colin Kirchhoff on
The idea of "fast fashion" and the idea that there are 52 weeks of fashion in the entire year has become an ever-growing trend for clothing manufacturers. Personally, I've been wearing the same clothes and outfits since I was in high school. But I do like the idea that people should spend less time and money on what they wear. Sure if you want to look fashionable for your peers, I have no problem with that. But it's also good to keep in mind how much waste is being produced from having an abundance of clothes and resources it takes to maintain those clothes. It has been found that the clothing and textile industry is the second largest producer of waste. They fall right behind the oil industry which I think is quite shocking. But if we really do think about: there are nearly 8 billion people on this planet. Every single one of those people is going to need some type of clothing; whether in vast quantities or not. I think as consumers we shroud follow our own self-interests, but we do need to keep in mind that if keep up at this rate, we are going to cause more unnecessary waste for your planet.

Submitted by Kaytlyn Anzivino on
I know the fashion industry is one of the larger consumers of the world’s water supply. This leads to drying up the water sources. I remember learning back in high school it takes about 500 - 700 gallons to make one cotton t-shirt. I also remember washing clothes can release microfabrics which has plastic in it and the colored dye that pollutes the water. I believe fast fashion is making a change to not damage the environment anymore. I have noticed many fashion companies are changing their business models. They are shifting with the sustainability movement. Sustainability issues that happen in the fashion industry are when manufacturing issues and/or overproduction occurs. This creates all sorts of issues and leads to waste. I know recently one of my friends here at UNI is working closely with a company called Dhakai. They are focusing on business to business model and empowering everyone involved in the product life cycle. Their driving forces are global transparency and sustainability. I think this company is a huge step in the right direction to combat this environmental issue. I also believe they are definitely changing the game for the fashion company's business models.

Submitted by Kaytlyn Anzivino on
I know the fashion industry is one of the larger consumers of the world’s water supply. This leads to drying up the water sources. I remember learning back in high school it takes about 500 - 700 gallons to make one cotton t-shirt. I also remember washing clothes can release microfabrics which has plastic in it and the colored dye that pollutes the water. I believe fast fashion is making a change to not damage the environment anymore. I have noticed many fashion companies are changing their business models. They are shifting with the sustainability movement. Sustainability issues that happen in the fashion industry are when manufacturing issues and/or overproduction occurs. This creates all sorts of issues and leads to waste. I know recently one of my friends here at UNI is working closely with a company called Dhakai. They are focusing on business to business model and empowering everyone involved in the product life cycle. Their driving forces are global transparency and sustainability. I think this company is a huge step in the right direction to combat this environmental issue. I also believe they are definitely changing the game for the fashion company's business models.

Submitted by Kari Coulter on
This article relates to what we have been discussing in my Business Policy and Strategy class. We have been talking about how today, a lot of businesses are trying to change to be more environmentally friendly. This is easier said than done. Yes, a business can change their processes and equipment to not put off so many greenhouse gas emissions, but as this article talks about, companies can also help by changing what they produce or the amount that they produce. I agree that creating more disposable clothes probably contributes to clothes ending up in the landfill more quickly and therefore they have a negative environmental impact. But if companies like Zara don’t make relatively affordable clothes and don’t stay up to date on trends, businesses will fail and will not receive the demand that they need to stay in business. I think consumers need to be aware of what they are spending and buying, which in turn will help reduce waste just as much or more as a company trying to be more green.

Submitted by Maggie Mathiasen on
We live a world that is constantly concerned about our appearance and making sure that we fit a standard look. Additionally, the use of social media can trick us into believing that if we don't have all of the trendy clothing or newest styles that we do not "fit in." Sometimes this can lead to buying an excessive amount of clothing just to make it look like we have the money to do so. However, I like the approach mentioned above. I like to buy clothes that have good quality because I know they are going to last me a long time. I think there is a time and place for the cheap clothing that you can find at H&M or Forever21. I think these clothes are still nice to have for a short period of time. Over all, I think most buyers would enjoy buying higher quality clothing knowing that it would be with them for awhile. Not to mention there is the plus of being nicer to the environment!

Submitted by Gabbi Hoversten on
Before reading this article, I never really gave much thought into how our clothes can impact the environment; in either a good or bad way. After reading this post however, I realized that it can have a very big impact on our economy and our environment. Today it is so hard to keep up with the newest fashion trends and fitting in with what everyone else is wearing. New trends and clothing lines are also coming out and everyone believes that they have to have the next biggest thing. I don't think some consumers realize how the resources found in our clothes impacts the environment. With that being said, I think it is the clothing stores' responsibility to inform us consumers about the materials found in our clothing and how to best take care of them. I also think it would be beneficial if those clothing stores also had suggestions on how we should dispose of our clothes after we are done wearing them, in order to help the environment even more.

Submitted by Kaelyn Knaack on
I believe people do not put much thought into the products we use or consume in regards to where they came from before they were in our possession, and where they go after we dispose of them. Clothing seems to be something we think little about regarding it's effect on the environment. Personally, I'll buy cheaper products because of the convenience of store location and price. Most retailers that offer cheaper products are easy to find because they have a more abundant location base, and they are able to mass produce products at a cheaper cost. When thinking about buying more expensive clothing items, it would be more of a hassle to find that specific store, or risk ordering the product online without trying it on, and paying a higher price for it. But should we be more worried about the environment than our own personal conveniences? I commend Zara for thinking about becoming more eco-friendly because the customers are less likely to do it on their own, without significant knowledge or reason.

Submitted by Katie Dentel on
Fast fashion has taken over in the younger generation, even though it's likely the clothes will be disposed of faster, a new trend will take over, and the cycle repeats. Mass producing clothing companies such as Shein and Zara have made their businesses successful in feeding off of this mindset, however the consequences must be considered. The environmental damage this industry has on our planet is so immense, that it emits more carbon than international flights and shipping by sea combined. As consumers, it is our responsibility to be more conscious of this when purchasing clothing items. However, it's the root of the cause itself to lessen their negative environmental impact. I'm impressed Zara has publicly recognized the changes they need to make and hope many other mass producing clothing companies follow in their tracks.

Submitted by Austin Agan on
I agree with us as consumers purchasing less clothes to help the environment more. I don't purchase clothes very often, but I do have a closet full of shirts that I don't wear as often as other clothes. I have these clothes just sitting there because I liked the shirt and wanted it, but I never even wear it. Marketing got the best of me in these situations, but it doesn't get me as often anymore seeing all of those clothes just sitting there. I have friends who go and purchase new clothes every week or every other week just to wear them once or twice for a night out with friends. It is a waste to the environment and a waste of money in my opinion. I will have to take this article and show them this so they know what they are doing to the environment. This article has given me more of a reason to not keep purchasing clothes just because they look cool and to just stick with the clothes that I have.

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