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Zalando is Leading the Way With Climate-Friendlier E-Commerce

Zalando is on a mission to eradicate its carbon footprint.

As of October 2019, the Berlin-based e-tailer, which serves more than 27 million customers in 17 countries, including Belgium, Denmark, France, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom, is “climate neutral” across its own operations, deliveries and returns. But it wants to pare back its emissions even further, setting Science Based Targets in line with the Paris Agreement to reduce its CO₂ impact across its business by 80 percent and from its own Zalando products by 40 percent from a 2017 baseline by 2025.

The firm also plans to work with 90 percent of its key partners, including brands and logistics and packaging providers, to help them set Science Based Targets of their own, and in so doing, “acknowledge [its] impact beyond [its] own operations.”

“As a company, industry and society, we are facing sustainability issues that cannot be ignored,” said Kate Heiny, Zalando’s director of sustainability. “It is clear there is an urgent need for action. It is equally clear that Zalando can play an important role in tackling what is one of the fundamental challenges of our time.”

To achieve these targets, Zalando plans to power all owned sites, such as office buildings and fulfillment centers, with renewable energy by 2023, becoming 10 percent more energy efficient across the company and dispensing orders in a carbon-neutral way. Already, the e-tailer has reduced its carbon footprint per order by 29 percent (compared with 2017) by switching to 90 percent green energy across all Zalando locations and installing solar panels on two of its fulfillment centers. To find solutions for last-mile pollution, it trialed a fleet of electric vehicles and experimented with a “social delivery” scheme that turns the homes of private citizens into pickup and drop-off points for customers. The company is also redesigning its packaging, with the aim of eliminating single-use plastics—a major source of fossil-fuel emissions—by 2023.

Zalando’s work to slash emissions extends to the products it sells. It has expanded its sustainable fashion assortment, flagging better-for-the-planet pieces from the likes of Nudie Jeans, Patagonia and Veja with a “green” label that signals their environmental bonafides. All clothing and footwear in its Zign private label now contain a minimum of 50 percent more sustainable materials, such as cotton sourced through the Better Cotton Initiative, or at least 20 percent recycled content. All Zign products this year, it added, are not only manufactured in the top 50 percent of its suppliers rated for social performance but they’re also required to submit environmental data to the Higg Index, which measures and helps improve performance in areas such as greenhouse gases, water use and waste.

Zalando, Heiny said, is the first platform worldwide to set science-based targets and have them approved by the Science Based Target initiative, but because of its model and scale, its efforts have the potential to “affect a large share of the fashion industry and the majority of Zalando’s partners,” including the more than 2,500 international brands it stocks.

Because it “remains impossible for any organization to not have any CO₂ emissions at all,” according to Heiny, Zalando works to squash its carbon footprint through a combination of reductions and offsets. Since last October, the e-tailer has been investing in certified reforestation projects that help with climate mitigation.

All of this comes at a financial cost, but Zalando sees a “clear link” between sustainability and the continued commercial success of its business and selling fashion online.

“We have a commitment to this, and there is an opportunity to address the holy grail of decoupling our business growth from our social and environmental impact,” Heiny said. “This is a big challenge and we know we need to do more to achieve this.”


What’s the most important issue the fashion industry has yet to address?

“A challenge for us is that we can’t change the fashion industry alone; we need to work hand-in-hand. We see great potential in partnering up and taking our partners with us on the journey to address today’s most important issues: climate change, use of resources and worker rights. One example of how we are tackling this would be joining hundreds of companies who have set Science Based Targets. Another one would be our efforts together with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to establish a sustainability standard for the fashion industry with the Higg Brand Retail Module.”

For more on Sustaining Voices, which celebrates the efforts the apparel industry is making toward securing a more environmentally responsible future through creative innovations, scalable solutions and forward-thinking initiatives that are spinning intent into action, visit sustainingvoices.com.

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