Retail is fundamentally bad for the environment. And doing better isn't easy.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on sustainability.

In a panel discussion early last year, Ron Jarvis, chief sustainability officer at The Home Depot, spoke a deep truth about all of the retailers pursuing sustainability: that there’s really no such thing as an environmentally friendly company.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Is this an environmentally friendly product?’ And I go, ‘No.’ Unless you’re an organic garden grower that has your garden by the river, and you deliver all your products in a wagon and a buggy, then you’re not environmentally friendly,” Jarvis said at the time. “Everything we do has an environmental impact. There’s risk across the board in everything, whether it’s carbon emissions, chemical exposure, deforestation — all of those are risks. We look at those and we monitor and we say, ‘Which ones are acceptable risk? Which ones could hurt the greater good? Which ones could hurt society?’ There’s risk across the board. And they all keep me up at night.” 

Jarvis isn’t the only one pondering the existential questions around retail and its impact on the environment. Asked if running a retail business is antithetical to sustainability, Mike Cangi, the co-founder and brand director of sustainable apparel company United By Blue, said it’s a “very valid and fair” question.

“How do you balance the negative impacts that any business has … with the desire to leave the world better than founded and to build an actually sustainable business?”

That’s something Cangi and his company think through often. To him, United By Blue and other sustainably-minded brands are there to serve customers who aren’t going to completely swear off buying new products for the sake of the environment. And Cangi guesses “the vast majority of people” fall into that category.

After all, the desire for newness is part of why retail exists at all. Consumers like buying new products, and fashion trends aren’t stagnant laws for shoppers to abide by — they’re ever-changing. So, Cangi argues, if consumers are going to buy products anyway, then maybe United By Blue is doing good by giving them a more environmentally friendly option.

“By putting out a better alternative, is that at the end of the day justification for making that product?” Cangi said. “As opposed to deciding that, ‘OK, no, we’re not going to sell it’? Because if customers are out there that are going to buy the product that is having a worse impact, then it allows us to help push things forward.”

Acknowledging that consumerism is a part of life, how can retailers pursue meaningful mitigation against the carbon emissions and waste they create? At what point should retailers stop prioritizing growing their businesses if it ultimately means more damage to the environment? And what should that type of calculus look like?

“I love those types of questions,” Cangi said. “Those are the big existential questions that I wish kept more people up at night.”

‘We are in a capitalist world’

Retail might never be an environmentally friendly industry, but we as a society are also unlikely to ever do away with retail. Pursuing sustainability, then, requires retailers to re-examine how they operate and in some ways, reconsider the core purpose of a business: making money.

Listen to any earnings call and retail executives will discuss their path to growth. The promise of fast growth has led to skyscraper-high valuations for some of retail’s youngest players, including fast fashion company Shein, which has become known for its heavy environmental impact. Thinking sustainably in the long run might mean jettisoning growth, or at least de-prioritizing it.

Catherine Chevauché, chairwoman of a technical committee on the circular economy within the International Organization for Standardization, is leading an effort to create a set of standards encompassing issues like how to move from a linear to a circular business model and what key performance indicators businesses should watch to judge if they are making progress.

“To be circular means that you will have to use less material to be able to slow the loop, to narrow the loop and to close the loop,” Chevauché said. “So what does it mean? The question is growth and do we have to de-growth? Maybe.”

Chevauché also works for water and waste energy management company Veolia, which is talking about how to emphasize selling quality over quantity. 

“Maybe it could be the same for retailers … to be able to have a profitable business model but not based on growth,” Chevauché said. “But it’s not an easy question because up to now, we are in a capitalist world and we are based on that growth.”


“Inherently, we’re doing harm to the environment with a lot of business decisions that we make, even though we can do them better.”

Ann Cantrell

Associate professor in the fashion business management department at the Fashion Institute of Technology


Ann Cantrell, an associate professor in the fashion business management department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, agreed that the industry needs to “reassess what success means” in the long term, but added that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Cantrell also runs an urban general store in Brooklyn, New York, called Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store, and is working through the same challenges in how to run a business positively.

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