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It's not easy being green

February 14, 2020 - 8:00am
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.


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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Submitted by Melody Morones on
This relates to what we had talked about in my business policy and strategy class lately.I believe that going green is something that could happen and would make a difference but obviously affect our economy. I say that because in the paragraph above, it mentions how if we buy less goods, then we are being more green. I believe that there are many more ways to go instead of having to buy less goods. I love being able to shop and I will admit that I go thrift shopping as well. That is what my style has been lately. If I wear brand apparel, that is because I had already owned it beforehand. From being in college, I have seen a lot of students bringing back the trend of wearing thrift shop clothes. You don't see much of "Buckle" clothing like you did nine years ago. I also feel that if a company were to produce regular clothes that wouldn't help the environment, then they could at least produce less of it until it hits popularity. As a consumer, I know that I spend money on things that I shouldn't. A goal of mine is to be able to really note down what I need and how much of it so not a lot of my stuff goes to waste. This would be a huge difference in the world if we could get everyone to do the same!

Submitted by Marnie Reynolds on
I think it is important for all companies to be environmentally friendly. While it may be more expensive in some parts of business, I think they will see the return in more customers who care about the environment and want to support environmentally friendly products. I feel like people in my generation and younger are starting to care more and more about the environment than ever before. Because of that I think people would spend more money on clothes if they know its helping the environment. For example, I found a company that plants 12 trees for every 1 shirt that is purchased. I purchased a few and when I told my friends about it they went and bought multiple as well. They aren't cheap shirts but because they help the environment, people my age are willing to spend the money!

Submitted by Jessi Hatting on
I feel like I am directly affected from this article because I choose to often shop at these 'fast fashion' kind of stores. The constant need for new outfits and not wanting to be seen re-wearing outfits stems a lot from social media. Some influencers post outfit pictures frequently as their job and therefore need to constantly keep up with the trends and change of styles. There is almost a negative stigma with wearing clothes over and over, which is ridiculous because spending a lot of money on clothes that you are only going to wear a couple times is a waste of resources and gives these companies business. I appreciate that these types of stores are getting called out and should possibly redirect their business strategies to more sustainable practices. I will also start moving more towards staple clothing rather than the 'throw away' clothing and think influencers and the rest of the public be informed on the poor environmental practices of some of the fashion industry.

Submitted by Justin Dahl on
I believe that environmental responsibility falls on both the consumer and the manufacturer. Up until the past few decades or so, companies did not have to worry about the environment as much, it appeared that resources were very high in supply and that the Earth could withstand the pollution we caused. Because of this, manufacturers could continue their practices while keeping the environment as an afterthought. This is not the case today, manufacturers and consumers have the responsibility to make sure we change our habits to keep environmental waste to a minimum. Zara should try to eliminate their waste and change up their marketing strategy of introducing thousands of trends yearly, although it will be hard for them to do since that strategy has been successful for them for so long, they need to realize that everyone needs to make changes to how they live if we want the planet to still exist. If Zara does fail to change their strategy, then the responsibility falls on us as consumers, if we really do care about the environment, we need to be the ones to step up and make a difference by choosing companies that are more environmentally friendly. We may not be able to legally shut these stores down, but we can shut them down by giving our business elsewhere.

Submitted by Karina Valdivia on
In today's world this problem, among many others, lies in our values as a society. Too often we are wrapped up in what others are doing and how we are perceived by them. Wearing the nicest and newest clothes is something we simply grew up knowing as the norm. As the means brands like Zara are taking to produce their products are coming to the surface and gaining attention, people are finally beginning to realize just how much we too are at fault for supporting and buying from these companies (myself included) Holding companies accountable for their actions has proven to be an effective way to get them to change the way they are running this business as it often times directly affects their profits. Companies are beginning to be more transparent with the ways in which they produce their products with the hopes of turning the negative attention, positive- much like Zara. I believe that the best way to reduce your carbon footprint in regards to the clothes you wear is to yes to reduce, reuse, recycle but also to simply wear it for as long as possible since that ultimately what it is meant for!

Submitted by Emily Ernberger on
I found this article interesting because I am a consumer of Zara. I have never thought about this perspective about their clothing. I personally think that making sustainable clothing is expensive but it would be worth it. I also gained some knowledge in the aspect that I did not know that Zara was just making "throw away clothing". I also gained knowledge in the idea that I did not ever think about how us throwing away clothes would affect the environment but it all makes logical sense. I think us as humans and consumers just want, want and want more and do not think about the consequences. I feel as if buying the clothes is the not the problem but us getting rid of so much is. I feel as if now a days we do not throw away that many clothes or at least I personally do not. Instead I donate the clothes. I also feel as if we should be able to consume what we want but I also believe that a bigger impact would be on how we take care of our clothes. It would be more sustainable to fix how we wash our clothes and take care of them so then in result we may not have to buy so many clothes or even throw them away. I really enjoyed this article and the knowledge that I gained from it. It changed my perspective about clothing and its tole on the environment.

Submitted by Mustafa Akbar on
Each company has a moral responsibility to consider the effects of its business on the environment. We're entering an age where consumers are really up to date with trends, and green-technology and Climate Change is a popular trend. If a business fails to implement eco-friendly policies in its business model than it is prone it's investors and consumer confidence.

Submitted by Mette Story on
I agree that we all have a responsibility to be environmentally aware and make conscious decisions that support the environment; choosing our clothing is one way that we can all make a difference. The problem is that high-quality clothing comes with a high price tag and for many people, spending a significant amount of money on clothes is not feasible. As a college student, money is always tight, so it’s tempting to go for the cheaper clothes because I can buy more for less money. I think it’s great that places like Zara are taking steps to lessen their environmental impact and I hope other stores do that as well. After reading this article, I will pay more attention to where I buy clothes, and try to minimize my impact as well. It’s important to see the big picture and be mindful of how our choices impact others as well as the environment.

Submitted by Kylee Luther on
Most companies nowadays are committing to becoming more environmentally friendly, when in reality their impact isn't as much as it could be. It was mentioned that sustainability goes beyond just how the clothes were made, but also how they are washed or how many each consumer buys. The less amount of clothing being consumed per person will actually have a greater impact on the environment than how the product is made in the first place. It has always been interesting to me how many companies change their way of doing things, just to be more socially responsible and yet don't really have a positive impact on the community. That's why they have started using accounting to report just how socially responsible they are being. Back to the fashion industry; in my opinion I don't believe that this industry can really impact the environment without the whole industry working together, as well as the main consumer group of the industry.

Submitted by Luma Yasin on
The concept of being environmentally responsible has been a main point in most of the discussions about businesses. As far as I know, Zara will start implementing the concept of environmental sustainability through using only organic fabrics, that can be recycled by 2025. I think Zara's strategy of having new clothes almost every week is what made it known for its fast fashion and this is why it is actually one of the most well-known and successful retail stores in the world. The concept of customers taking action is a very great point. As much as I agree about companies and customers being more aware about how clothes are impacting the environment and taking action about it, but there's this idea of "today's world" where a lot of people care about being trendy more than anything else. Customers might be aware, but considering the fashion trends/social pressure, are they going to stop purchasing things and filling their wardrobe? I know there are people who don't really care about how trendy their wardrobe is and as a result, they don't buy as much clothes unless they need it. But these days, with all those fashion influencers and social media impact, many people will find it hard not to follow the fashion trends. However, Zara has a program in collaboration with non-profit organizations that gives customers the opportunity to give away the clothes that they don't use anymore so they can be recycled.