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Why Zalando Thinks Circularity is Do or Die

Laura Coppen, head of circularity at Zalando, believes that fashion companies need to pivot away from the linear economy or risk perishing for want of trying.

“It certainly isn’t going to happen overnight, but we really believe that in order to decouple growth from environmental impact in the industry, we need to create fashion from safe, recycled, renewable inputs [that are] designed to last longer and can be recycled again and again,” Coppen said at Sourcing Journal’s Sourcing Summit on Tuesday.

This isn’t a case of do as I say, not as I do. Speaking to Sourcing Journal founder and president Edward Hertzman, Coppen described the Berlin-based e-tailer’s transition from a make-take-dispose model to a circular one, with the goal of extending the life of at least 50 million fashion items by 2023. Zalando, she noted, serves 45 million customers across 23 markets, which means it has a responsibility to leverage its size and scale to drive behavior change and promote more sustainable consumption.

One recent milestone for the company is the second “redeZign for circularity” collection from its private label Zign, which scaled the number of offerings from five to 50 to meet customer demand for planet-friendlier clothing and footwear. Zalando, which also stocks products from more than 4,500 international brands, conceived of each item according to circular design principles it’s working to define with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and sustainability consultancy “These products are particularly designed for reuse, so additional technical durability factors are embedded in [them],” Coppen said. “Also the products can be recycled, and that was enabled through the material choice and production processes.”

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Balancing better-for-the-planet materials with their sometimes heftier costs isn’t easy, she admitted. While roughly 40 percent of its customers would pay more for a sustainable product, according to a recent survey Zalando commissioned, 81 percent rated value for money as their No. 1 consideration. “Sustainable products can’t be just seen as premium,” Coppen said. “They need to be affordable because we need to ensure we can democratize sustainable fashion.”

Still, it’s clear that the number of people seeking more responsible options has ballooned during the pandemic, which contributed to its double-digit growth in 2020, she said. Over the past year, 50 percent of its customers have purchased one or more products flagged on the site as sustainable. An estimated 16 percent of the e-tailer’s gross merchandise value, which refers to the sticker price of the goods sold on the platform, also stems from the sale of its eco-friendly assortment, which features more than 10,000 items from the likes of Nudie Jeans, Patagonia and Veja. “We aim to increase that percentage to 23 percent by 2023,” Coppen said.

To do that, Zalando needs to address the so-called attitude-behavior gap among its clientele, which cares deeply about sustainability but “struggles to translate values into action” when shopping, according to the same survey results. Some 60 percent of respondents, for instance, cited repair, secondhand and sustainable disposal as important to them, yet only 23 percent mended their own garments and 25 percent regularly purchased used.

The fact that so many wanted their castoffs to receive a “new lease of life” rather than end up in a landfill or incinerator, however, is a “really good sign people do care,” Coppen said. “But I think they lack the convenience offers, the accessible services and just the educational solutions to enable them to take this behavior shift.”

To target its growing Gen Z base, which has shown the greatest enthusiasm for circular business models, Zalando is rolling out care and repair services, first in Berlin and Dusseldorf, and then to its other markets. It’s expanding its existing pre-owned offering, which allows customers to buy and trade in gently worn garments, and investing in Finland’s Infinited Fiber Company to help it crank out recycled cellulosic fibers that can replace virgin textiles. The e-tailer is also going shoulder to shoulder with innovation platform Fashion for Good to scale textile end-of-life management and working with Forum for the Future’s Cotton 2040 initiative to accelerate the uptake of sustainable cotton.

“Collaboration sounds like a bit of a buzzword, but it’s incredibly important,” Coppen said. “There’s a lot that needs to be done in this space, but we see great collaborative opportunities and projects underway in the industry that we’re part of and encourage all brands to be part of as well.”