Grow sustainable fashion sustainably

Green fashion as a sales argument : How fair is Zalando's sustainability offensive really?

When Martin Höfeler and Anton Jurian founded their start-up Armedangels in 2007, they were considered to be do-gooders. They wanted to produce chic fashion that should also be sustainable and fair at the same time. Earning money with it was actually not that easy in the first few years. They would have paid themselves just 1,500 euros a month as wages, the two said in an interview.

Today, however, her company has a turnover of millions - and stands like no other brand for the change in the German fashion market. According to a study by the management consultancy McKinsey & Company, the range of sustainable clothing is growing fivefold every year. There is now a large variety of brands, especially online, that have made sustainable and fair textile production the core of their brand identity.

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The corona pandemic has intensified this again. At the online retailer Zalando, for example, the number of customers who buy more sustainable fashion doubled to 40 percent between January and October 2020.

The group is taking advantage of this increasing awareness among customers: since 2018, for example, the online shop has had its own search filter with the category “sustainability”. Zalando has also been selling used clothing since October 2020.

The company does not want to provide any precise information on the share of second-hand sales in total business. The offer has been so well received by customers that the items offered daily have been increased from 20,000 items per day to 40,000 used items of clothing, says a spokeswoman. In the long term, Zalando wants to establish a kind of cycle: In the future, the company plans to take back all items of clothing that customers have bought and worn. Depending on the condition, the items of clothing taken back should then be resold used or recycled, Zalando said at the company's annual press conference on Tuesday.

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Online advisory services such as “The Sustainable Shopping Cart”, where consumers can find out about seals and production conditions, have reported significantly higher access numbers since the beginning of the pandemic. At the green online department store "Avocadostore", new customers have come and interest in the brands and the sustainability of the products has risen again, says a spokeswoman.

"Due to the global restrictions of the pandemic, consumers are more aware of where products actually come from and how global supply chains are structured," says Sebastian Popp from Saarland University. "That has certainly increased awareness that many international supply chains are problematic from an ecological perspective." Popp also observes this development in his research: In a survey by Popps Institute, 33 percent of customers said that they have been more concerned about environmental pollution since the pandemic to inform about products. Almost half were also more interested in regional products than before the pandemic.

The big fast fashion chains are also feeling this development: H&M, Primark and the Zara parent company Inditex suffered major losses in the Corona year. At Inditex, profits in 2020 even fell by 70 percent compared to the previous year. The increasing awareness of sustainability is putting the chains under additional pressure. H&M has already responded and has set itself the goal of using only sustainable or recycled materials by 2030.

Is that the trend reversal in the fashion market?

In spite of everything, these developments are not yet the big turnaround. Sustainable and fairly produced clothing still only accounts for around one percent of the total trade volume in the clothing market. Because the interests of customers is one thing - what they actually buy is another. "The awareness of the problem is there," says Dr. Silke Kleinhückelkotten from the Institute for Social-Ecological Research and Education in Hanover. But buying clothes has many functions. At the moment of the purchase decision, factors such as price, status and emotional reactions would often override environmental awareness, says Kleinhückelkotten.

At the same time, inconsistent information and a large number of seals make it difficult to buy sustainable clothing. A green sign on the T-shirt says nothing at all about its actual sustainability. "You really have to know your way around to be able to evaluate whether a product is sustainable," says Indra Enterlein, Head of Resource Policy at the NABU Bundesverband. This problem is also evident with Zalando's sustainability filter. If an item of clothing meets one of 21 sustainability criteria, it is labeled with a green sustainability banner in the Zalando shop. However, the strictness and significance of the criteria differ widely. Official seals and self-developed sustainability criteria of the group stand side by side: Products that have been awarded the demanding “Fairtrade Certified Cotton” label appear next to those that only consist of at least 20 percent recycled plastic.

It is also noticeable that none of the sustainability criteria set up by Zalando itself take social or labor standards into account. “Sustainability is a strong word that suggests that both ecological and social standards are adhered to,” says Enterlein. “Zalando deliberately arouses expectations that cannot be met,” she criticizes. The group is doing itself a disservice by lumping together strictly certified garments and those that only meet very low standards.

Zalando wants to set itself more ambitious goals

According to Zalando, however, this is where it wants to improve: The sustainability criteria it has set itself are to be tightened step by step. Suppliers should also be encouraged to set themselves goals for reducing Co2. "In the long term, a scientifically sound goal to reduce Co2 will become a condition in order to sell clothing via Zalando," said Zalando co-boss Rubin Ritter on Tuesday morning. In this way, Zalando should not only become climate-neutral, but also climate-positive. By 2025, the company wants to reduce its own emissions by 80 percent compared to 2017. Emissions that cannot be saved are to be offset by compensation payments, for example for afforestation. Zalando is aware of the danger posed by climate change and is orienting its sustainability strategy towards the 1.5 degree target of the Paris Climate Agreement, said Ritter.

How consumers can train themselves

That choosing an item of clothing is an emotional decision doesn't make it any better. If you like a t-shirt or trousers, the sustainability aspect quickly falls by the wayside. Researchers from the University of Duisburg-Essen want to solve this problem: "We are concerned with how one can actually implement the resolution to consume more sustainably," says Oliver Büttner. Together with colleagues, the business psychologist is developing a training program designed to make it easier for consumers to avoid impulse purchases.

For this purpose, the study participants are shown pictures of typical shopping situations in the laboratory. They should learn to reflect and slow down their buying impulse and not to be distracted by offers. Büttner and his colleagues, however, are still at the forefront with their research: "The long-term goal is to develop online training or an app that anyone who wants to can use to learn to consume more sustainably."

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