A discussion about sustainable fashion with SEAS/Erb graduate student Annie Zaro
The rise of social media and access to the internet has sparked new waves of environmentalism among younger generations, particularly college students. Many among Generation Z and Millennials have become increasingly aware of their own environmental impact and are seeking avenues to curb their carbon footprint. Of the multitude of options—from changing your diet and minimizing plastic use, to consumer choice—finding more sustainable alternatives for clothing has become quite popular. Thrifting, using resale apps, and shopping from responsible brands are all common ways to change shopping habits, and so far have proved effective in reducing waste. But, even with this increase in environmentalism in the fashion industry, the demand for cheap clothing has allowed “fast fashion” to persist. Fast fashion, as defined by associate professor of instruction Vertica Bhardwaj at the University of Texas at Austin, is the clothing market consisting of low-cost and low-quality clothing which provides consumers affordable, “throwaway” garments—the kind that are simply discarded rather than recycled after use.
Given the popularity of fast fashion brands such as H&M or Zara, plenty of incentive exists for companies to turn towards these less sustainable and cheaper manufacturing options. Yet eco-friendly brands still persist creating a fascinating dichotomy within the market of dirt-cheap yet poor-quality options, and long-lasting yet expensive pieces. So, why does this phenomenon occur? Why do brands choose to operate either sustainably or frugally? Is the possibility of a future with 100% sustainable fashion possible?
To better understand this issue, I conducted an interview with a graduate student from the Erb Institute, Annie Zaro. The Erb Institute is the University of Michigan’s dual-degree program with the School for Environment and Sustainability and the Ross School of Business that allows students to gain understanding of how business and the environment interact, and how corporations can be drivers of change rather than forces of harm.
Zaro is currently pursuing an MBA and MS, focusing on sustainable and socially responsible fashion. She has several years of experience working in the clothing industry, working for brands such as Stitch Fix (a custom wardrobe service) on their vendor relations and sourcing, as well as a master's project with prAna, where she studied the fibers and carbon footprint of their existing products. The goal of the prAna study was to provide insight as to how switching to more sustainable fiber alternatives would impact the brand’s overall carbon emissions. Given her background, Zaro was the perfect person to provide more insight into the inner workings of the fashion industry.
One of the core roots of the problem surrounding the clothing market that Zaro identified is our consumer culture. The demand from buyers and the desire from businesses to maximize profits generates a cycle where consumers become accustomed to low prices and being able to afford several pieces at once. To meet this growing demand, businesses start to cut costs and produce cheap garments. Therein lies the problem: consumers would rather buy a multitude of pieces rather than invest in one high-quality garment. This leads to massive waste, as these fast-fashion products are low in quality and deteriorate much faster than their more expensive alternatives, and therefore must be replaced more frequently. On top of that, consumers are much less likely to donate these products when they are done wearing them and will instead throw them away. Zaro refers to this as a linear lifecycle, where clothing meets the end of its use by being discarded rather than being recycled or reused.
Zaro discussed some solutions to this consumer culture and how to keep clothing within a cyclical life cycle. Thrifting was one of the proposed solutions, and with the advent of online companies like ThredUp, thrifting is becoming easier for the average person who may not have the patience to sift through aisles of clothing in a physical shop. Shoppers can quickly search for brands or sizes they are interested in using the app, and can utilize filters to further narrow their search. Additionally, ThredUp also makes selling used clothes easier; users can send in unwanted clothing, and the company handles the pricing and shipping of the garments. It removes the difficulty of pricing and shipping the items that apps like Depop and Poshmark have.
Zaro reflected on her own experience with thrifting and how it has transformed her own buying habits. She felt as though, since she was now shopping for pre-worn pieces, her focus shifted from finding several cheap yet fashionable items to searching for singular, more unique pieces. This sentiment is one many thrifters have, where the goal is to find one-of-a-kind items, shifting away from the consumer culture.
Some brands have recognized this growing interest in thrifting. Take Madewell, for example; they are well-known for their high-quality jeans, but the price tag is one thing that keeps many shoppers from purchasing their items. To combat this, they have introduced a “Pre-Loved” section to their website, featuring pre-owned denim that retains the high quality they promise, but at a cheaper price. It’s a win-win scenario; it allows shoppers who don’t have the budget for full price Madewell jeans to buy a pair of their own, and is a great marketing tool for the brand to display that their jeans are amazing quality, even secondhand.
Another issue I discussed with Zaro during our interview was how brands can ensure or incentivize consumers to properly recycle their products rather than wasting them. This is a huge question, because after a buyer purchases a piece of clothing, the fate of that product is ultimately in the buyer’s hands. There is no guarantee that someone will choose to donate or resell their clothing, even if it is in perfect condition. Zaro shared some of her thoughts on ways to overcome this issue, the first of which is a choice for businesses rather than consumers. When designing a product, companies should have the entire product’s life cycle in mind, and not only think about the sale to the customer as the last step in their product’s life. To ensure reuse and recycling is possible, companies can work on designing their products so that they can be deconstructed at recycling centers. One thing we might not consider when looking at clothing is the blend of fabrics that are used. Zaro informed me about how garments of mixed fibers are actually incredibly difficult to deconstruct and reuse, and that infrastructure is severely lacking for collecting and sorting fabrics. While the lack of infrastructure does create issues, I propose that consumers read tags and descriptions on products, ensuring they buy pieces that are only made of one material—a great and easy way to help reduce waste.
One of the last concerns we discussed was regarding transparency and brand values, and how these can contribute to sustainability. Companies that have strong moral values and environmental goals they want to achieve can take steps to ensure that the manufacturers they work with are also actively engaging in eco-friendly behaviors. For instance, Zaro spoke about the brand Everlane and how they purposely choose factories that they know are already working on reducing or recycling their water used in the production of denim, a fabric that is infamous for its intensive water requirements. Another example is Nike, a well-renowned company that has initiatives to reuse as much scrap material as possible in their shoes to cut down on waste. The factories they work with try to cycle as much of their waste material as possible back into the production of new shoes. On the consumer’s end, Nike has even included information about how much recycled material each shoe contains to help buyers make more informed choices on their products.
In terms of brand transparency, this was something Zaro identified as being a potential avenue for companies to display and prove that they choose factories to work with responsibly. Additionally, this transparency allows consumers to hold companies accountable for these supply chain partnerships, which can incentivize companies to reassess who they are working with.
In my own experience, transparency also gives consumers access to information that proves whether or not a brand is genuinely sustainable or if they are making false claims (otherwise known as greenwashing). Many companies can claim they are sustainable without providing evidence, such as H&M and their “Conscious” collection, which the brand labels as eco-friendly. However, research has found that this collection is actually worse for the environment than their main line. By disclosing factory information, buyers can fact-check company claims and avoid brands that merely purport sustainability.
While it still remains a challenge for consumers to differentiate between greenwashing and genuine environmental efforts, it is still helpful for brands to provide as much information as possible about their sustainable practices and goals to indicate their commitment to sustainability. Consumers generally don’t conduct research on the products they are shopping for, so if businesses can provide the evidence on their website for buyers, this generates trust and a positive reputation.
Additionally, consumers can look for certifications on websites that prove brand sustainability, such as B Corp certification or Fair Trade certification. Certifications do, however, open up another opportunity for greenwashing, so it is important that buyers research the certifications brands claim they have. Terra Thread, for example, is a backpack company I’ve personally had a positive experience with that prides itself on its carbon neutrality and fair trade cotton. Their website does a fantastic job demonstrating to consumers how their products are environmentally friendly, with plenty of sources and articles citing this as fact. The brand can sell their products knowing they are practicing the claims they make, and consumers can feel good about buying from them because they know they are sustainable and fair trade.
Many questions still exist for the future of fashion. Is a sustainable future for the market possible if mass production still continues? Will the desire for profit outweigh the desire for sustainability in the long run? There are many questions and scenarios to consider, but with what Zaro imparted to me, I think there is hope, but efforts need to be made by both consumers and companies alike.
This article originally was published on the Planet Blue Ambassador website.