How Zalando is doing its bit to improve fashion sustainability

This summer alone Zara has promised it will only sell clothes made from organic, sustainable or recycled materials by 2025, while Asos has launched a ‘responsible edit’ vertical on its site containing ‘environmentally-conscious’ clothing lines.

Earlier this year Farfetch unveiled ‘Second Life’, a handbag resale service enabling consumers to sell back used items. And now Zalando has added to its array of green initiatives, by announcing a plethora of so-called sustainable brands will launch on its marketplace imminently.

“Our ambition is to provide customers with a bigger assortment to choose from, clearer information to choose with, and all the inspiration they need to make more sustainable choices,” explains Sara Diez, vice president for womenswear at Zalando.

Zalando’s move

Zalando is adding brands including Ecoalf, Mud Jeans, Swe-s, Girlfriend Collective, and Stripe + Stare to its platform this summer, in direct response to seeing an increase of searches for terms like “organic,” or “fairtrade” on its pages.

The Germany-based marketplace which sells in 17 European countries said consumers can find it difficult to understand the term sustainability, and how to find products based on social and environmental values. It said it is working on changing that situation, including improved messaging via its online sustainable hub.

Zalando’s sustainable fashion assortment now consists of 15,000-plus items from over 240 brands, and it marks items with the most sustainable materials or certificates with a “sustainability flag”. It was first tested in 2017, but rolled out to all its markets last year.

“Our current fashion assortment with a sustainability benefit is already one of the largest available in Europe, but we’re just getting started,” says Diez.

“Onboarding these new brands is an important step on our journey, and we’ll focus on adding more sustainable choices to our assortment in the upcoming months.”

Diez told Essential Retail Zalando is working on various initiatives to improve its sustainability – it now uses 100% recyclable packaging and is increasingly encouraging brands to use its ship from store ‘Connected Retail’ tool for more local fulfilment.

A potentially bigger gamechanger in terms of evolving fast fashion culture is the development of its ‘Wardrobe’ service, which allows customers to sell back approved second-hand items whether they were bought from Zalando or not. The provision launched in Germany in 2018, and is very much in test mode.

“We are analysing lots of things that are happening and working out how we scale it – we need to test and learn a bit more,” notes Diez.

“People tend to give back items with low price points. We need to make it commercially viable. We are really at the stage where we test and learn – we tend to learn in Germany before we roll out, but the beauty of our business is we can scale things really fast.”

Trouble with sustainability

Of course, the term “sustainable” can be a misnomer for businesses – after all, as Iceland’s Richard Walker has often highlighted during his quest for more environmentally-friendly practices in retail, “everything leaves a footprint”.

Rachel Arthur, chief innovation officer of the Current Global, a consultancy focused on fashion and technology strategy, also recently highlighted the difficulty of defining sustainability.

Reflecting on headlines suggesting Zara was going “100% sustainable”, she tweeted: “Terribly misleading statement. One of the major problems in this space is brands announcing something like this that’s meaningless (and not actually possible) yet will be interpreted as truth by consumers. Big difference between “better” and sustainable.”

The difficulties in defining true sustainability aside, fast fashion companies are at least now shaping their organisations differently in response to consumer demand and scientific warnings about the impact their operations have on the environment.

Zalando has identified the trouble consumers have with defining sustainability and understanding what it actually means. It’s a recognition that fast fashion and business in general have much more work to do in improving their eco credentials.