Welcome to this column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what fashion retailing is doing to address the issues in its industry.
Earlier this year online fashion platform Zalando launched a new ‘shop by values’ service after carrying out research with 2,000 of its users around Europe. The resulting report ‘It Takes Two’ concluded that consumers face a barrier to shopping sustainably because they just do not understand exactly what sustainable means in a fashion context. We could also add to this the very variable quality of brands’ information and transparency on these issues when people are searching for fashion online and in-store. Generally confusion reigns supreme.
As many as 60% of those questioned thought transparency on ethical matters was important but only 20% ever try to find it. The same with labour conditions – a clear majority say it’s important but only a small minority can be bothered to research an item’s production system. As one participant noted consumers who are already trying really hard to be green in terms of transport, recycling and food purchasing just want their clothes shopping to be easy
What Zalando is effectively calling for is an industry-wide system of representing sustainability with agreed definitions to help customers navigate. Interestingly it is also launching a ‘shop by values’ filter which it hopes will also help those who know they want to shop ethically filter in their own personal choices. It seems that a clever operator can see ways to help both those who are very eco-focused along with those who are completely eco-confused.
The Zalando model will allow people to shop by areas such as worker conditions, water conservation and emission reduction. However, Zalando is not the first company to hook on to the notion that different consumers care about different things. Several years ago the start-up app Renoon had a similar idea but went one step further – it collected all the ethical edits from the different brands on one platform and then allowed users to filter even that already sustainable platform by four selection criteria such as earth and humanity. But its impact remains currently small in the ocean of the global fashion industry.
Increasingly retailers, brands and selling platforms are all grappling with the problem of how to present the sustainable credentials of the clothing they produce and sell. Will customers use the sustainable filter? It could lead to consumers feeling guilty if they buy from the non-sustainable section and the impression of worthy and unworthy clothes which is something that brands will want to avoid. Or worse the filter might become something buyers simply ignore as they can do any other filter.
Might it be better not to split out the sustainable products into a separate edit but simply to highlight on each item listing in which ways it is sustainable so that the customer feels virtuous by default – the eco-credentials have come to them as an added bonus? This is potentially a more realistic proposition given the oft-proven disconnect between what people say and what they do on sustainable matters.
Another major retailer might have the right idea. If you use the word sustainable on its fashion search only 18 products come up. However, the company has committed to making sure all its own-brand products have at least one sustainable attribute. It doesn’t cater for those who have an overwhelming preference for say animal welfare over everything else but as a catch all it might have a bigger effect on the general population long-term provided it also manages to communicate the sustainable element in a positive way. After all if a retailer goes to the trouble of having sustainable attributes in its clothing range then it should definitely be informing consumers.
As Zalando’s report notes clothes have a unique relationship with the consumer – they give us self-confidence because of how they look not because of how they are made. But just maybe we are reaching a place whereby customers are beginning to feel even more self-assured walking down the street because their jeans are made of repurposed denim. Therefore, being directed towards better information can only be useful in helping consumers navigate the gap between what they say they want to do and what they actually do.