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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.


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 Moriah Ross on
This article reminds me of a student presentation I heard in my Environment, Technology, and Society Capstone class. The students presented on recycling. They touched on many aspects of recycling, but one student talked about clothes. She suggested that we find clothes and shoes that we do not use anymore and donate them to a second hand store, instead of throwing them away. This is more affordable for people who can't buy their clothes from Zara or H&M. Also it helps the environment because textile production is usually highly water intensive. And if clothes are thrown away they are brought to landfills and burned. When burned they release toxic chemicals into the air. There are small things that independent people can do to help our environment and community.

Submitted by Abbey Burris on
I agree with the article that Forever 21 sells very inexpensive clothing. Many of the shirts I owned from Forever 21 would nearly fall apart when I would do laundry. I didn’t consider the environment when I would end up throwing the shirts away because they weren't even worthy of donating. Three companies that I can think of off the top of my head that are eco-friendly include: Patagonia, TOMS, and 4Oceans. All three companies are focused on the environment in a different way. I think it is cool that 4Oceans creates bracelets from trash pulled out of the ocean and sells them for $20. When a consumer purchases a bracelet the price paid by the consumer is donated back to 4Oceans to continue to clean our oceans. I agree with the article title that it's not easy being green. All three companies that I listed above are not necessarily cheap. Being green comes with a cost that consumers need to be willing to pay. Consumers as a whole need to focus on quality over quantity. We need clothing that will last more than wash in the laundry. I think in today’s world, clothing companies need to better address how they are being sustainable and what materials they are using to create our favorite pieces of clothing. If consumers are informed about what their clothes are made from then we can better care about the article of clothing and it will last longer. I also know that American Eagle encourages consumers to bring in any old pair of jeans that they can recycle. I think this is a good idea to help consumers dispose of their clothing in an environment friendly way.

Submitted by Adam Nalley on
I agree w/ pretty much all of this. Fast fashion is inherently not good for the environment. Anything that is intended to be disposable and quickly used is not good for the environment, but clothes are even worse. Clothes are supposed to be at least somewhat durable, but many products from the cheap trendy shops fall apart very quickly. People in general should be more conservative with how many clothes they buy, and at least try to downsize a little bit. A shirt that's worn once and put away forever is almost more wasteful than one that is worn a lot but falls apart in a year.

Submitted by Paige Sieren on
I agree with this article! I believe that clothing should last multiple washes over a long period of time. More cheaper-end fashion stores such as Zara or H&M need to become more eco-friendly because the short lasting clothing has a negative effect on the environment from the high rates of disposal. If they can find a way to create more durable clothing and keep the price relatively competitive, they would be able to reduce their carbon footprint. Obviously as the title states, it's not easy or cheap being green, but consumers are often willing to spend more money knowing that the company they are buying from is practicing a more "green" approach to business.

Submitted by Caiti Schaben on
I would agree that it is wasteful for people to buy more clothes than they need. I know, having a big family, that buying chap clothes is a really big deal. Additionally, not many people want to wear hand-me-down clothes. Thrift shopping is becoming more popular, but I think that we as consumers could really find ways to up-cycle our clothes. Many people I know are good at sewing and can often alter their clothes to keep up with changes in trends. additionally, we can recycle fabric. I have seen some people use old socks that no longer fit as scrub rags for cleaning, or donate older, raggedy towels or blankets they no longer use to animal shelters. I think we as consumers need to be conscious of how what we buy affects others.

Submitted by Hannah Hoth on
This is very eye opening article that I had not ever thought of... I am a lover of clothes shopping and I have not thought about the environmental accepts of it. I do think that is a better idea to buy higher quality clothes so you do not have to purchase replacements so often. I am thankful that I have had a good job to be able to buy higher quality clothes. I do believe that clothing companies have the biggest responsibility to make their clothing environmentally friendly. Making we should start focusing on how to recycle old clothing.

Submitted by Jonah Johnson on
There are ways that companies can be more environmentally friendly. Could there be a way for clothing companies to make clothes that could air dry quicker than other clothes? This could help out because people could buy these kind of clothes and choose to air dry them rather than putting them into a dryer. This could save some electricity. There are ways that people can be more environmentally friendly. One way that people could be more environmentally friendly is that they could wash all their clothes with cold water rather than hot water. This saves some electricity from being used to heat water up. Another way people could probably be more environmentally friendly is for them to take their old clothes and use them as work clothes or pajamas. This probably could help out in someway to reduce the number of clothes they buy and maybe the environment too.

Submitted by Logan Willis on
This was a very good and interesting read to learn from. I know from myself personally that I tend to wear the same clothing options quite often. I usually find a few I like and stick with them as I feel as there is no need to have a different outfit for every day. I do think it is a bit crazy that there is a whole new clothing set every week. I do think it would be better to opt in for more higher quality clothing at a lesser release rate. Companies do need to continue on staying up to date with the trends going on around the world but also should try to keep their prices down as we can't have pieces of clothing come so expensive like how phone prices have gone up over time. In the end I feel as if consumers are also responsible for a lot of what's going on as we buy things constantly and at the prices they are if we didn't do this as much companies would change their style of doing business and maybe make things better for us and the environment.

Submitted by Faith Aruwan on
Before reading this article, I didn't know Zara was taking the route of being more environmentally friendly. I do commend them for taking a lead, especially in the clothing industry. Some questions running through my mind when reading this is will this new change the Bullwhip Effect in a positive or negative way? What is the extent of the change? The goal of a business is usually to maximize profit. I hope that making this change also helps drive up their sales if it has a positive impact on their customers and the environment.

Submitted by Chris White on
Personally, I wear clothes until I can't anymore. I don't really enjoy clothes shopping so I only do it when I have to. Granted, I am one person out of the entire world, but I do not think it is that complicated. i get how some people like to express themselves through fashion, but that is not something I have ever related to. I focus more on who people are than what they wear, and I wish we could do that as a society.