HOW SUSTAINABLE IS ZALANDO REALLY? - A Shift
Thoughts, Mode

HOW SUSTAINABLE IS THE ONLINE FASHION PLATFORM ZALANDO REALLY?

Posted in Thoughts, Mode — 17. June 2021 — Written by Mona

Europe’s biggest online fashion marketplace and platform Zalando is diving into the world of sustainability more and more. With the introduction of a sustainable range – items from different brands and labels that fall into Zalando’s definition of sustainability – Zalando is trying to give its customers eco-friendlier options to make a change. According to Zalando the company wants to “drive positive change in the fashion industry by highlighting products that exceed” its sustainability standards. The question of how sustainable Zalando really is arises. 

Maybe you have already seen the sustainability section of garments and other items you can get on Zalando: the sustainability range. All pieces that fall into Zalando’s definition of sustainable have a tiny green label in the corner saying they are sustainable. Let’s take a closer look at what is sustainable to Zalando and what the company is doing to become more sustainable. How sustainable is the online fashion platform Zalando really?

 

Screenshot of Zalando's sustainability progress report making us wonder how sustainable is the online fashion platform Zalando really

Zalando’s Sustainability Progress Report

In 2020 Zalando released its first Sustainability Progress Report to showcase past achievements and future goals regarding efforts towards a more sustainable future for the company including all different brands under the platform’s remit. Let’s have a closer look at what is being talked about in the report. Zalando announced that it will require all fashion brands selling on their marketplace to provide information on their social and environmental efforts as well as supply chain by 2023. Brands that will not or cannot comply will be removed from the online fashion platform. While this sounds like a great start we decided to dig a little deeper to find out more about how sustainable Zalando really is. 

What exactly is ‘sustainable’ to Zalando? 

Zalando claims to offer one of the largest “assortments with a sustainability benefit” in Europe. Further, the online fashion platform claims on its sustainability page that “50% of customers made more sustainable choices”, that they made 16% of GMV (Gross Merchandise Value) with more sustainable products and to have “80,000 more sustainable products in shop”. If a product fulfills at least one of the company’s sustainability criteria it will be counted as ‘more sustainable’ and therefore will be put into the sustainable range. Now that leaves us as consumers guessing what exactly ‘sustainable’ means to Zalando. 

We dove a little deeper into what exactly makes a garment sustainable to Zalando. In its Sustainability Progress Report from 2020 Zalando explains on page 29 that there is no industry-wide definition of what sustainable fashion really means and entails – we like the honesty so far. Zalando’s biggest goal here is to lead the industry toward a common standard for sustainability. The company partnered up with the Sustainable apparel Coalition and the Higg Index suite of tools. According to Zalando this will help provide comparable and credible information to customers. So far, so good, but what are the criteria exactly? 

‘ETHICAL SOURCING STANDARDS’

Zalando claims to have “Ethical Sourcing Standards” to ensure that all products the company sells were produced in an ethical and environmentally responsible manner. The minimum requirements for specific fibres, materials and manufacturing methods is said to align with Zalando’s Code of Conduct and applies to all business partners as well. Zalando makes clear statements against forced labour, child labour and discrimination in its Code of Conduct. Further, the company explains the maximum working hours that are permitted, as well as the right to dignified treatment and freedom of association. While the Code of Conduct and ethical standards sound promising it is unclear how well or if they are monitored at all. 

‘MORE SUSTAINABLE’

Moreover, Zalando explains what ‘more sustainable’ means. The company wants to provide simple, credible and comparable product information since customers have expressed that sustainability can be complex and difficult to understand. Based on that Zalando provides “detailed information about the benefits” of each product regarding the materials and therefore less harmful impact on the environment. This can also include product’s or brand’s certificates from third parties like GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or Fair Trade cotton according to Zalando. Zalando gives the example that in 2021 the minimum of 20% recycled materials will be raised to 30%. What about the other specific numbers for this criteria? We were only able to find the minimum for the other materials in a footnote on page 60 of the Sustainability Progress Report


What does the footnote say? 

The following numbers are the minimum criteria for sustainable products on Zalando according to the report

Eco-material (min. 50% lyocell, linen, hemp, jute, LENZING VISCOSE™ / ECOVERO™, TENCEL™, Birla Spunshades, FSC-certified wood / rubber / paper / cork)

Organic cotton (min. 50%)

Better Cotton (BCI)

Recycled material (min. 20% polyester / nylon, cotton, cellulosics, wool, down, rubber, leather, metal, plastics)

Eco-processing (bluesign®, SteP by OEKO-TEX®, OEKO-TEX® Made in Green, chrome-free leather, water-based PU)

Innovative materials (leather alternatives, bio-based materials, materials upcycled from waste)

Certifications: fairtrade, Global Organic Textile Standard, Organic Content Standard, Global Recycle Standard, EU Ecolabel, Responsible Down Standard, Leather Working Group


Let’s look at some ‘sustainable’ products on Zalando

While it is impossible for us to look at every single piece in Zalando’s sustainability range, we wanted to look at some of them to find out more about what sustainability means to Zalando. What counts and what does not? Items that fall into Zalando’s sustainability range all have a green sustainability tag. 

In the first example you can see the tag. Once you click on the small section on the right side of the garment a text opens up explaining what makes that specific item sustainable to Zalando. In this case – and in most others – the sustainability criteria of being made from 50-70% organic materials is met. 

A set of crop tops from a brand that can be found on Zalando made from organic cotton

Zalando explains that products with this label contain at least 50% organic materials – in this case organic cotton. After that follows some information about the benefits of organic cotton. However, the small section does not give any clarifications on the specific third party that certified the organic material. No info on certifications or what organizations certified the garments is given. On top of that, the section does not make it clear that organic materials are not always as sustainable as we think, especially regarding the working conditions. 

A shirt from a brand that can be found on Zalando made from tencel lyocell

The second garment we picked as an example is from another fast fashion brand. However, this product was made from lyocell also known as TENCEL™ which we have talked and raved about before. While this material is definitely one of our favourites it is unclear where and under what working conditions the 30% cotton have been sourced. 

A pair of jeans from a brand that can be found on Zalando partially made from recycled polyester

Example three shows pants from a fast fashion brand that were partially made with recycled materials. They were made from 65% cotton and 35% polyester. Zalando’s sustainability criteria that is being met in this example is using at least 20% of recycled polyester over virgin polyester. It is not fully clear if all 35% of these pants were made from recycled materials or if it is in fact only 20%. Moreover, everyone has to decide for themselves if 20% is enough and can truly make a product sustainable. 

A skirt from a sustainable brand that can be found on Zalando made from mulesing-free wool in Europe but not showing the sustainability tag

For the last example we picked a brand that ASHIFT sees as sustainable and slow fashion made in Europe. The skirt was made from 100% wool and does not have a sustainability tag in the corner of the picture. Why not? On the brand’s own website we can see that the skirt was made from certified mulesing-free wool and was made in Europe. 

We decided to ‘learn more’

For each ‘sustainable’ item we showed you Zalando gives out more information regarding its sustainability in the sustainability section next to the product. There are five special sections each in a different colour. The only ones we have seen during our research were the blue, green and purple ones. 

Zalando's sustainability section about water conservation

Water conservation

Zalando explains how organic cotton requires up to 90% less water than conventional cotton. Further it works together with standards such as bluesign® and the Leather Working Group to ensure that the resource is being handled with care. 

Zalando's sustainability section about reducing emissions

Reducing emissions

Zalando explains that if we as consumers want to lower our carbon footprint we should start by changing how we shop – if we remember correctly 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s emissions. Further, Zalando clarifies that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global emissions and that “we need to start prioritising fashion that makes use of existing materials and renewable energy”.  

Zalando's sustainability section about reusing materials

Reusing materials

Here Zalando explains how only 1% of textiles are part of a closed loop and how circular fashion aims to reduce waste. The company then shortly talks about how some brands use recycled materials or bio-based materials like pineapple leaves. However, why is Zalando not explaining to its customers how microplastics are harmful to marine life? There are no solutions being talked about like using specific filters when washing clothes made from synthetic fibres – recycled or not. Even if 20% of a garment were made from recycled polyester Zalando should feel responsible to educate its customers on this matter. We have talked about the dangers of microplastics before in our Fabric Index.

What about the other two?

There are two additional categories or criteria you can find by digging on Zalando’s sustainability pages: Worker wellbeing and animal welfare. However, there is not much information about these two either and we did not find garments with these categories in the sustainability section during our own limited research. When clicking on each section you can then look for specific garments that fall into this category or criteria – it is just not as easy as it should be to find them in the first place.

Zalando's sustainability section about worker wellbeing
Zalando's sustainability section about animal welfare

We wonder why the last example we have showed did not show either of those and was not even considered sustainable. On top of that, we wonder why these five criteria were not mentioned in detail in Zalando’s Sustainability Progress Report and why there is no sustainability page explaining each one in detail so customers know what they are buying and why they should trust Zalando’s judgement. This gets even more confusing regarding the fact that in that same report the material criteria could only be found in the last pages. Why did Zalando not make it clear that these five are – possibly – the main criteria? Are they the main criteria? We are just as confused as you are. 

The issue of certifications and credibility 

We noticed how some of the pieces labeled as sustainable on Zalando are certified by the Better Cotton Initiative. We have talked about BCI and some horrible conditions in many of its production sites in Bangladesh before in an article about sustainable initiatives. From children working with dangerous machines or during the night – both illegal in Bangladesh – to non-organic cotton from other countries in the warehouses and the shocking revelation that no real rules seem to apply to how much BCI cotton actually ends up in the garments. Zalando claims that clothes with the BCI tag usually contain at least 50% cotton “from a retailer or brand that is committed to sourcing Better Cotton and investing in BCI Farmers. It does not mean the product is made of physically traceable Better Cotton”. 

a section about the better cotton initiative in a sustainability section on Zalando
a section about the challenges concerning certifications in Zalando's sustainability progress report

The silver lining? Thankfully Zalando seems to have realized the problematic background and wants to remove the certification. “BCI will no longer be eligible for the sustainability flag from January 1, 2022. We will start removing the Better Cotton On-Product Mark from affected products”. However, it is not clear if this means brands and products that work with BCI will still be able to be sold on Zalando and even be a part of the sustainability range. 

Another good thing, Zalando explains that there are challenges when it comes to third party certifications. The company explains in its Sustainability Progress Report how certification labelling rules can sometimes prevent Zalando from displaying third-party labels since the brands themselves have to carry the certification too. 

What other things is Zalando trying to do regarding sustainability?

The company also announced that by 2023 all brands on its online fashion platform have to measure up to new requirements when it comes to sustainable efforts. The requirements can be summarized in a 250-question audit all about the supply chain as well as social and environmental efforts. The brands participating will be ranked by the Higg Brand and Retail Module. Further, Zalando sees “a crucial link between sustainability and the continued commercial success” of the online platform’s business. 

Next to that, Zalando aims to design its packaging more environmentally friendly to reduce waste to a minimum. All boxes are made from 100% recycled cardboard with ink made with a water base. Zalando’s poly bags are made from 64% recycled plastic and beauty products are now being wrapped in 100% recycled paper instead of plastic. A big goal is to eliminate single-use plastics by 2023. 

One thing we love the most is that Zalando also offers secondhand items that other customers have bought (and in some cases have not bought) on Zalando to ensure a circular fashion system. In Zalando’s Pre-Owned section we can shop secondhand items for cheaper.

Introducing vegan product labels also seems to be a goal which we appreciate! All in all, the company has tried to reduce its own carbon emissions as much as possible and further aims to do so. When it comes to sustainability Zalando expresses how ‘it takes two’ in its Attitude Behavior Gap Report. The company conducted a study and asked 12 consumers about their opinions and consumption behaviour regarding sustainability. The small study shows how consumers want to be sustainable but often don’t show this with their shopping behaviour. To us it seems that Zalando is forgetting how a lot of people simply don’t have the resources to do so. Luckily, the report talks about how many consumers are lacking education when it comes to sustainability and for example repairing their own garments. At the end of the report different leaders within the fashion industry give possible solutions for the industry as a whole. We definitely advise you to look at the report if you are interested. While many points are valid and there seem to be amazing solutions the number one solution is and always will be for people to shop way less. However, is that not what Zalando needs? Overconsumption. 

So, what do we think? How sustainable is Zalando really?

Many of Zalando’s approaches toward becoming more sustainable and offering practical solutions for the fashion industry as a whole sound promising if implemented correctly. However, we have to remind ourselves that Zalando is one of the largest online fashion platforms with sales worth around 8 billion Euros in 2020. It makes sense that Zalando does not make its criteria 100% clear and does not make substantial information available for its customers. At the end of the day Zalando profits from the current overconsumption of fast fashion in society. 

Zalando is making it quite clear that the company’s sustainability journey is mostly based on strategy in order to go with what the customers want. While strategy regarding sustainability always gives us greenwashing vibes this does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. After all it is what we want as customers and consumers – to do the right thing. However, what happens if customers are being fed a definition of sustainable that does not align with theirs all while thinking it does since there is a lack of substantial information? Calling a garment sustainable if 20% of it is made from recycled materials while the brand selling the piece is not showing any credible social or environmental efforts does not sit right with us.

We hope that by 2023 we will receive more information about each garment regarding the planet, the people and animals, as well as the brand’s supply chain when shopping on Zalando. Further, we hope that Zalando will focus more on its pre-owned section since secondhand clothing can be a real game changer and it is not clear how many people even know about it. Lastly, a more sustainable range would be ideal – ironic is it not? 

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