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Zalando Joins Brands Backtracking on Sustainability Claims

Zalando has dropped its sustainability “flag” after a Norwegian jury presented the Berlin-based fashion purveyor with its inaugural grønnvaskingsprisen, or greenwashing prize, last week.

The online retailer, which serves 25 European markets, debuted the concept in 2019 to help consumers more easily locate products made with better-for-the-planet materials or processes. Zalando had decided to do this, it said then, because it saw an uptick in searches for terms such as “organic” or “fair trade” on its website, indicating a groundswell of interest in clothing and footwear with those attributes. The flag started appearing on sneakers, jeans and dresses by brands such as Armedangels, Filippa K, Mother of Pearl, Nudie Jeans, Patagonia and Veja, along with items from its Zign private label.

“Our current fashion assortment with a sustainability benefit is already one of the largest available in Europe, but we’re just getting started,” Sara Diez, its vice president of women’s wear, said when the initiative launched. “Our ambition is to provide customers with a bigger assortment to choose from, clearer information to choose with, and all the inspiration they need to make more sustainable choices.”

In a section of its corporate website that was still live on Thursday, Zalando said that it wanted to enable consumers to “live their values” when making their purchases. In the absence of a global definition of what “sustainability” means, it was “taking action” to fete the benefits of tens of thousands of its offerings with “lower impacts on people and the planet.”

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Every flagged product, it noted, contained at least one sustainability feature that fulfilled criteria based on the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC) Higg Materials Sustainability Index and Textile Exchange’s Preferred Fiber and Materials List (MSI), as well as minimum content thresholds for those materials. Highlighted attributes included organic cotton, recycled polyester and Leather Working Group-rated hides. It was also possible for shoppers to filter search results by impact areas such as animal welfare, reducing emissions, reusing materials, water conservation and worker wellbeing

But the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC), a government agency that convened representatives from the Oslo Academy of Arts, Framtiden i Våre Hände and Skift to judge some 40 candidates for the greenwashing award, said that using the Higg MSI to measure a product’s entire environmental impact can misrepresent reality. It referred to a recent ruling by the country’s consumer ombudsman that Norrøna was “breaking the law” when it extrapolated global averages from the platform to market its organic cotton T-shirts as eco-friendlier than its conventional counterparts.

By marketing its clothes under the tab “sustainability,” Zalando was also giving the impression that “we can buy our way out of environmental challenges,” the jury said. It said there needed to be “strict” requirements for using the term to refer to fashion, a product category with a high environmental footprint and well-documented issues with human rights. Zalando beat out travel site, fellow clothing company KappAhl and beauty retailer Kicks for the ignoble honor.

Zalando's sustainability filter
Zalando’s sustainability filter is meant to narrow search results by certain impact areas. Courtesy

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition declined to comment.

Gunstein Instefjord, head of consumer policy at the NCC and a jury member, took issue not only with Zalando’s “misleading” filter but also with its use of “sustainability,” which he said “helps to obscure the environmental challenge that clothing consumption entails.”

“Far too much clothing is both bought and produced, and clothing production accounts for a considerable amount of the world’s total climate emissions,” Instefjord said. “When you as a consumer want to buy the most sustainable sweater at Zalando, it is a paradox that the more sustainability goals you choose to filter on, the more products appear as alternatives. It should obviously have been the other way around.”

A filter that helps consumers make more responsible choices is “good in principle,” he added. But the search criteria should inform rather than distort.

“Filtering on recognized and effective third-party certification such as the Nordic Ecolabel, the EU flower or the Global Organic Textile Standard would be of real help to consumers who want to make more sustainable choices,” Instefjord said. “This should be low-hanging fruit—especially for Zalando, which actually has products with GOTS certification in its catalog.”

On Thursday, visitors to Zalando’s website could still apply the filter to hone search options. Product data under a “sustainability” dropdown also indicated certain impact areas or criteria related to the product, though the information provided offered only the broadest of strokes, such as the use of non-specified energy-saving processes or recycled materials. Some items referenced certifications like the Global Recycled Standard or Leather Working Group, and their issuers, though this was less common.

Zalando's sustainability information
A ”sustainability” dropdown offers general information about the product’s environmental impact. Courtesy

Zalando told Sourcing Journal that it will soon replace the sustainability flag with information about a product’s specific environmental attributes, such as whether it uses organic or recycled materials. These attributes, it said, will be backed by “explicit” certifications, trademarks or licensed materials.

“While we are sad to receive this award, we acknowledge the challenges related to transparent and specific communication about sustainability in fashion,” a spokesperson from the e-tailer said. “We will continue to take our responsibilities seriously in tackling this fundamental challenge by pushing ourselves, our partners and the industry forward.”

The transition, which began last year, has been progressing at “full speed” for the past few months and will soon take place, Zalando said.

“As a society, we need to reduce our environmental impact and improve social outcomes in all areas of our daily lives—this applies in particular to clothing,” the spokesperson said. ”But our research shows that many consumers struggle to turn their sustainability priorities into fashion purchasing decisions. We know that every second customer is unclear about what sustainability means in a fashion context, which highlights a need for more specific and trustworthy product information.”

Zalando’s move comes amid growing backlash over unsubstantiated sustainability claims in fashion, which until recently have rarely been policed by regulators. This is changing, however. When the European Union presented its strategy for circular textiles in April, it specified a desire to crack down on greenwashing. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission is looking to update its Green Guides.

In September, H&M said it would be removing its “Conscious Choice” labels from its online and brick-and-mortar stores. Instead of using the phrase “more sustainable material” to highlight a garment’s recycled or organic content on its product detail pages, the Swedish retailer will refer to “additional material information.”

H&M acknowledged it was making this transition, in part, because of a recent admonishment by the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) for employing vague, unsubstantiated terms that could mislead consumers into thinking certain products are better for the environment than they really are.

Like with Norrøna, the NCA warned H&M that using Higg MSI data in its marketing claims could be considered a breach of greenwashing laws, even though it wasn’t doing so in Norway at the time. The world’s second-largest fashion producer by revenue is also embroiled in a class-action lawsuit that accused it of deceiving consumers about its sustainability credentials through the use of “false and misleading” environmental scorecards and advertising.

An H&M representative told Sourcing Journal last month that the fast-fashion chain was “committed to learn and adapt.”

In July, Asos quietly jettisoned its “Responsible Edit” and its related filters just as Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced a probe into the e-tailer, along with Boohoo’s “Ready for the Future” range and George at Asda’s “George for Good” collection, for potential greenwashing.

A review conducted by the watchdog group in January highlighted potential issues for greenwashing as brands increasingly puff up their products’ sustainable credentials to woo consumers seeking to dress more ethically.

In some instances, the criteria companies use to decide which products to include in these edits might be lower than customers might “reasonably expect” from their descriptions and overall presentation, the CMA said. In others, items might be included even if they don’t meet those criteria. The agency also dinged retailers for eliding information such as what an item’s fabric is made from or whether a certain accreditation scheme or standard applies to a particular product or a brand’s overall practices.

“People who want to ‘buy green’ should be able to do so confident that they aren’t being misled. Eco-friendly and sustainable products can play a role in tackling climate change, but only if they are genuine,” Sarah Cardell, the CMA’s interim chief executive of the CMA, said in August. “We’ll be scrutinizing green claims from Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda to see if they stack up. Should we find these companies are using misleading eco claims, we won’t hesitate to take enforcement action—through the courts if necessary.”

At least one company is taking proactive steps.

In its latest suite of standards, published last month, Kering issued guidance for sustainability claims to “avoid any risk of potential greenwashing statements.” This included swerving away from “broad, generic sustainability-related statements“ such as “eco-friendly,” “environmentally friendly” or “green.” Its native France, the luxury conglomerate noted, passed a decree this year banning nebulous environmental assertions such as “eco-friendly,” “respectful of the environment” and “protects nature.”

“The product’s graphic design shall not mislead the consumer and present the product as ’more‘ sustainable [than] it is,” Kering wrote in the guidance, which was first reported by Apparel Insider. “Without excluding their use altogether, the use of visual or sound elements associated with nature or evoking nature must not mislead the consumer about the environmental properties of the product.”

A product’s properties shall be “expressed with factual, accurate detail and the claim must correspond with the product’s properties,” it added. Precision is also required when making comparisons. To wit, any statement about a lower environmental impact or an increase in efficiency must be precise and paired with detailed figures and data, indicating a baseline for the comparison, Kering said.

Greenwashing, the Gucci owner said, is a “serious obstacle ”to achieving a “truly sustainable transition” in the fashion industry because it prevents consumers from making informed purchasing decisions.

“Furthermore, it is also a form of unfair competition that can harm companies that communicate their sustainability efforts in a proportionate, measurable and fair way,” Kering said. “More recently, a spotlight has been shown on this issue; with the increase of criticism of inappropriate claims on social media and the tightening of the regulatory framework in several countries, accusations of greenwashing are becoming more likely. In turn, this has the potential to damage corporate and brand reputations.”