Zalando's director of sustainability, Kate Heiny.

Actions speak louder than words, and Zalando wants its well-meaning customers to take action based on their values. For the past year or so, the team has been looking to close the gap between what consumers say, and what they actually do, in the sustainable shopping realm.

Kate Heiny, director, sustainability at Zalando, discussed that research, and the myriad challenges the company faces in nudging its consumers to shop sustainably, at the Fairchild Media Group’s Sustainability Summit. 

Read more stories from the sustainability summit by clicking here.

In 2020, she said that 50 percent of Zalando’s customers made sustainable choices — a number that doubled in 12 months, fueled by the pandemic. Zalando is also aware that its customers want to do more for the environment — they just don’t know how to go about it.

“Sustainability is neither fun, nor well understood in the fashion context,” said Heiny. “Every second participant in our [recent] survey does not understand what sustainability means when it comes to fashion. And when we asked them how they felt about sustainable fashion, unfortunately, the strongest association was with guilt, and the weakest association was with fun.”

She added: “I think it’s fair to say that sustainable fashion has an image problem.”

In a bid to bridge that big attitude-behavior gap, Zalando conducted more research, zooming in on a dozen customers in the U.K., Sweden and Germany. Researchers poked around customers’ homes and closets, interviewed them and went shopping with them.

Zalando later broadened its net to 2,500 customers in even more European markets, and the results showed not just one, but many, gaps emerging. For example, while 60 percent of respondents said supply chain transparency was a priority to them, only 20 percent revealed they’d acted on that information.

With its newly gathered data and research, Zalando brought on board industry groups, brands such as H&M, and the number-crunchers at McKinsey & Co. to help devise a strategy aimed at narrowing all of those gaps.

Zalando ended by making suggestions to the wider industry, and setting three priorities for itself: Communicate clearly, motivate changes in consumer behavior and scale circularity.

With regard to transparency and communication, Heiny said Zalando should be speaking “a sustainability language that everyone can understand. We can help consumers buy into sustainability brand missions and we can influence wisely.”

The company already has a “flag” system that leverages third-party certifications for individual products, and is also developing an industry-wide measurement and reporting tool for sustainability within the fashion and apparel industry.

In mid-April it began providing a new set of information to customers that highlights products and brands that are leaders in fields such as water conservation or reusing materials.

Going forward, another priority for Zalando is to make shopping fun by “presenting products as an investment, as opposed to a one-off cost. One idea could be to communicate the longevity and durability of an item on a cost-per-wear type of calculation.”

Heiny said Zalando can also work toward boosting conversion on sustainable products “with motivating factors such as quality and fit. We can help customers buy right, not more. We can use data and technology to fix unsustainable discounting. We know that value, fit and quality continue to trump sustainability as a motivator of purchasing fashion, so we need to use smart ways to position sustainable products around these benefits.”

The company also wants to scale circular fashion — and to make secondhand clothing attractive to consumers who like the idea of buying it, but who may be put off by the experience being “yucky,” or difficult, she said.

Heiny added that Zalando wants to support its relatively large base of customers who routinely repair their clothes or take them for repair. “We need to help customers understand that secondhand shopping is as good as shopping new, we need to fight the stigma that exists around it,” she said.

In October, Zalando launched its preowned program, which sees it buy back clothes from customers and resell them “at the same convenience and quality level that we provide” for new items.

“I believe, truly, that as an industry, as platforms, as brands, as retailers along with our consumers, we can bridge this gap,” said Heiny.

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