Zalando Enables More Customers to Shop Sustainably With New Value-Based Browsing Experience

Insights on the challenges and solutions in speaking a sustainability language everyone can understand

Launching today is Zalando’s Attitude-Behavior Gap Report, “It Takes Two.” The report investigates the disconnect between how customers want to shop when it comes to sustainable fashion and how they actually do. Conducted in three stages and surveying 2,500 consumers across two generations and five markets, the report finds that one blocker to shopping sustainable fashion is how complex it is. One in every two customers doesn’t understand what sustainability means in a fashion context.

Through its new value-based browsing experience, Zalando hopes to lead by example on one of the report’s key insights and recommendations to “Speak a sustainability language everyone can understand.” Customers are now able to shop based on the causes and values they care about, and more easily understand the important work that our brand partners are doing to scale more sustainable practices. We learn more about the current context of sustainable fashion shopping and the new solution presented from Director of Product, Digital Experience Sustainability, Julien Slijan and Team Lead, Circular and Sustainable Products, Beth Greenaway.

Tell us about yourselves and the work you do at Zalando.

Julien: I lead the Digital Experience Sustainability team at Zalando, which aims to enable our more than 38 million customers to positively contribute to the wellbeing of people and the planet through their fashion choices. Our team is responsible for continuously evolving our digital experience in a way that makes selecting more sustainable products and delivery options, and adopting circular services more accessible, fun, and engaging.

Zalando SE Beth Greenaway
Team Lead, Circular and Sustainable Products, Beth Greenaway
Director of Product, Digital Experience Sustainability, Julien Slijan

Beth: I’m part of Zalando’s Circularity team and lead our work around circular and sustainable products. This includes setting our product sustainability standards, collaborating with our 3,500 brand partners and industry groups like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), and of course working closely with Julien and his team to enable our customers to discover and select more sustainable products.

Where do you think we’re at as a society when it comes to fashion and sustainability?

Julien: As the “It Takes Two” report illustrates, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated awareness of the global sustainability challenges that we jointly face, and the need for change is urgent. Our customers share our values, and one in four Zalando customers already considers sustainability when making a purchasing decision. If we want to achieve our vision of being the Starting Point for Fashion, this means becoming a part of the solution and transforming the way our business and our industry operates, enabling others where we can.

Beth: We’re already making good progress towards the goals we set as part of our do.MORE Sustainability Strategy in 2019, like becoming carbon neutral in our own operations and making sustainability assessments mandatory for our 3,500 partner brands. In 2020, almost 50% of our customers bought at least one product carrying the sustainability flag, and we launched the Pre-owned category that allows customers to trade in or purchase pre-owned items, extending the life of products. This is just the start, and we know there is much more we need to do.

What is the biggest challenge that the fashion industry faces when it comes to enabling customers to make more sustainable choices?

Julien: The biggest challenge that we and our customers face is that there is no industry-wide definition of what “more sustainable fashion” means or how to talk about product-level impact in an accurate and engaging way. Our long-term ambition is to join forces with other industry leaders to help lead the fashion industry toward a common approach for measuring and communicating sustainability performance, with the aim to offer customers information about the sustainability performance of products that is simple, credible, and comparable. To lead this change, we have been collaborating with the SAC and the Higg Index since 2018 and have actively been sharing our learnings with the industry so that we can move faster together towards our joint goals. However in the meantime, we’re also taking bold action to make sustainability more understandable and engaging for our customers.

The biggest blockers our customers face when shopping for more sustainable fashion are complexity and trust.

Director of Product, Digital Experience Sustain

The report explores the disconnect between consumer ambitions around sustainability and how they shop in practice. What are some of the blockers that we know customers experience when trying to shop by their values?

Julien: We know that sustainability is important in the daily lives of two-thirds of our customers, but prioritizing sustainability in fashion is much less common. The biggest blockers our customers face when shopping for more sustainable fashion are complexity and trust. For example, one in every two customers doesn’t understand what sustainability means for fashion.

We need to strike the right balance between communicating sustainability in a simple and engaging way, while also providing enough information for customers to engage with the depth of the issues at hand. From an industry perspective, we also need to ensure that this messaging is consistent across brands and retailers, as customers don’t only shop in one place.

What has shopping more sustainable fashion looked like for Zalando customers so far?

Beth: We want to enable our customers to make more sustainable choices in line with our goal to generate 25% of our Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) with more sustainable products by 2023. Currently, we do this by highlighting products with our sustainability flag that are made with more sustainable materials or processes, or are certified by trusted third-party standards. We also run regular marketing campaigns and have recently updated our Sustainability Hub to create more transparency for our customers about our sustainability criteria, current processes and future ambitions.

Our new browsing experience is launching on the Zalando Fashion Store. What is it and how does it hope to address these blockers?

Julien: We are introducing a new customer experience which enables customers to discover and select more sustainable fashion based on the causes and values they care about the most: animal welfare, reusing materials, worker well-being, water conservation, reducing emissions and extending the life of fashion.

By mapping our existing sustainability criteria and assortment to impact areas, we aim to break down the complex topic of sustainability into a language that everyone can understand. When customers have built that understanding, the experience allows them to act on their values, bridging the gap between their values and their fashion choices. We also learned that the dry and scientific language of sustainability certification can be draining for customers, so the design approach we have taken for this new experience is one that doesn't break the joy of engaging with fashion but is still based on science and leading practices.

How do you get the balance right between the seriousness of the topic and creating a joyful experience? And why is that balance important?

It goes without saying all the sustainability claims we make on our Fashion Store should be accurate and based on the best available science and leading practices. However, we’ve learnt over time that just adding a third-party certification or additional text isn’t the most impactful way of driving behavioral change. Our research shows that our customers also need to feel emotionally connected to sustainability issues in a fun and positive way, so that they are motivated to invest the time to dig deeper and understand the impact of their choices.

Our customers also need to feel emotionally connected ... so that they are motivated to invest the time to dig deeper and understand the impact of their choices.

Team Lead, Circular and Sustainable Products, Beth Greenaway

What most excites you about the new browsing experience? What kind of impact would you like it to create?

Beth: The information we’re showing to customers isn’t new, but it is presented in a completely transformed way that has the potential to activate more sustainable choices amongst our growing base of over 38 million active customers. I’m most excited about the positive impact that this small step will have, especially in the future when we are able to offer our customers quantifiable and comparable impact data as the accuracy of sustainability information improves.  

Julien: Before working for Zalando, I myself wasn’t really clear about the impact I was having on people and the planet when buying a fashion product. Realizing my own impact truly affected my shopping behaviour and the shopping behaviour of the people around me. What gets me excited about this experience is that we will help our customers have that same realization as well, enabling them to take actions.

What’s next?

Julien: This new experience is a first step towards integrating sustainability content throughout the customer experience, but it doesn’t tackle some of the other big problems that our customers face, such as comparing the sustainability performance of products or brands. We see the new customer experience for more sustainable fashion as a learning opportunity, so that we can discover how customers engage with the sustainability information we display. We also want to understand which trade-offs they are willing to make when it comes to fashion choices that reflect their values, or in the future, more environmentally-friendly delivery options or new circular services. Our ultimate aim is to connect the scientific side of sustainability with experiences that bring our customers joy, so that we can drive behavioral change at scale.