Fast and disposable fashion is a problem across Europe. Consumers say they are becoming more concerned about the impact fashion brands have on the planet. According to Statista, when it comes to purchasing online, more than half of the UK, German and Dutch consumers bought fashion or sportswear online, whereas this percentage was lower in Belgium, France and Italy. While these consumers say they want sustainable products, they are buying, mostly, not-so-green products. If sustainability is so in, why aren’t more people buying ethically made clothes?
What is sustainable fashion
Sustainable fashion can be defined as clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects. In practice, this implies continuous work to improve all stages of the product’s life cycle, from design, raw material production, manufacturing, transport, storage, marketing and final sale, to use, reuse, repair, remake and recycling of the product and its components.— Green Strategy
What does it have to do with Zalando?
Zalando is an online retailer that has Europe’s largest selection of clothing, accessories and shoes. In fact, Zalando just recorded over 34 million users across Europe this August.
When building products that shape the behavior of millions of people, we should be more conscious about how these products affect our environment and sustainability. We measure apps using words like engagement, performance, conversion, and sales to evaluate trade-offs. But we rarely talk about sustainability in product discussions. How many sustainable choices has Zalando enabled, for instance?
Nine in ten Generation Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues. By committing to sustainability, Zalando can secure its long-term growth, stay relevant to its customers, and pave the way to establish market-leading differentiation against its competitors.
Both consumers and brands have responsibilities when it comes to making sustainable choices.
Consumers cannot be entirely responsible for making “unsustainable” decisions. When we buy something with Zalando, we are supporting that brand and Zalando, meaning we support what they are doing and what they stand for. But, how do we know if we’re doing the right thing!?
A transparent brand provides some sort of assurance that they are doing their part to ensure safe working conditions and reduced environmental impact. While retailers like Zalando have an obligation to know everything that goes on in their supply chains, it is up to them to pass on that information for us to make informed decisions. Currently, as consumers, we cannot make an informed decision and compare products before purchase in terms of sustainability.
This May, Zalando announced it would be the first retailer to use the Higg Brand & Retailer Module from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to make sustainability assessment mandatory for its private labels and partner brands. While this move will have significant consequences for the industry, Zalando also needs to ensure it passes the information onto its customers so we as its customers are able to make informed decisions.
Sustainability on Zalando’s current platform is represented with a filter that filters to show its sustainable range of private brands and pictures marked with “sustainability.” This is still the minority of most of what is being sold on Zalando as there are many products that have no sustainability labels or ratings.
On a similar note, in Europe, mandatory labels showing a product’s energy efficiency have already been implemented across Europe since 2019. This measure helps Europeans to save the amount of energy consumed by 11 million homes per year. What if the Higg Index was similarly displayed on or below every product sold on Zalando?
Let’s take a look at the above jeans.The value of the jeans market worldwide is approximately $110 billion USD. Sadly, denim can have a substantial environmental and human cost. Cotton is known to be a particularly thirsty crop — by some estimates, it can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton. This is appalling. 20,000 litres of water to produce just one t-shirt and one pair of jeans! On top of that, pesticides and synthetic chemical dyes can lead to extensive water pollution. Organic cotton, however, eliminates the use of pesticides and fertilizers and prevents the contamination of groundwater. The impact of water pollution of organic cotton is 98% less compared to conventional cotton production.
By looking at the current label, a customer understands that this pair of jeans is more sustainable than others but has no idea why organic cotton is better, whether the jeans has other human or environmental costs that haven’t been indicated. Standardized sustainability reporting on Zalando’s products would help consumers make economically-viable and sustainable choices, instead of just satisfying an immediate need, as it is today.
How Zalando can help
Zalando has given its partners three years to measure up to these new requirements. All brands will need to be ranked by the Higg Brand and Retail Module, which will look into the environmental and social impact of a brand’s products. While this is a great start, here are a few other aspects it needs to think about:
- The post-COVID consumer will prioritize trust and purpose and will likely evaluate companies based on how they acted during and after the crisis. How Zalando chooses to share this transparency with its customers will be crucial to how it is viewed as a brand.
- Millennials, who are going to represent 75% of the workforce by 2025, already consider sustainability a shopping priority. There are several possible sources for gathering sustainability data: manufacturers, brands, ethical practice indexes, transparency trackers, and and the consumers themselves. The latter is the most feasible way to aggregate this data on a large scale. It would, however, require that ubiquitous companies like Zalando collect, process and present the data back to consumers.
- Educate. A recent survey conducted in the UK showed Londoners have very different definitions of sustainable fashion in 2019. While 57% admitted they were willing to pay more for eco-friendly clothing, the study suggested they were unsure as to what sustainability entails in the fashion industry. As part of Zalando’s do.More strategy, Zalando can create material that details sustainable practices as well as what the index means for Zalando as a retailer that is available for customers to refer to across the app and website.
- Analyze the purchase cycle. Analyzing how many people are using sustainability filters or spending time trying to understand sustainability could provide insight into what kinds of sustainable items consumers are interested in.
Will Zalando do it?
Zalando can and is influencing the industry in this direction. 400 of Zalando’s brands are currently engaged with the first stage of its sustainability programme, which involves a 250-question audit that probes into every part of a company’s supply chain — and the business expects that it will have its first results by November. It’s unlikely that Zalando would ship sustainability reporting if it didn’t increase profits but Zalando is already working towards understanding sustainability information about its brands. What it needs to work on is also sharing that information with its consumers. As long as it sees a crucial link between sustainability and the commercial success of its business, Zalando will continue to move in this direction
Our brains aren’t wired to make long-term decisions — we crave quick adrenaline rushes. However, once properly educated, we become more willing to do what’s good for them long-term — e.g. exercising and eating healthy. By educating consumers on the overall cost of each product that they purchase, Zalando can positively impact both the environment and our well-being.