Zalando to roll out’s Circular Design Criteria to brands

Zalando to roll out’s Circular Design Criteria to brands

As shown in Zalando’s 2021 Sustainability Progress Report, we have spent the last two years laying important foundations for circularity and working towards extending the life of 50 million fashion products by 2023. Hear Zalando’s Head of Circularity, Laura Coppen, explain the refined and adapted Circular Design Criteria of Berlin-based, that will allow for a standardisation of products designed for circularity by our 5,800 brand partners on the Zalando platform and supporting our 48 million customers to discover products that are more safe, durable and recyclable.

Why is circular design needed in the fashion industry?

Circular design is needed in the fashion industry because there is a huge environmental impact created in the Design and Manufacture Stage of a product’s lifecycle. Everything from the material choices to the production processes, can have a dramatic impact at that stage, with a knock on effect on how that product flows through its entire life cycle — how it is used, how it is reused, how it typically doesn’t, but should, get recycled. By applying Circular Design Criteria we enable designers to change the way they design products and set a clear framework for brands wanting to sell and promote such products on our platform.

If we zoom out and see where the industry is when it comes to circularity, in the last few years there is a dramatic increase in knowledge as to what a circular economy can bring to industries, specifically the fashion industry. New business models such as recommerce, rentals and the recycling infrastructure are really starting to pick up. The piece of the puzzle that has been less tackled is this circular design piece. It will require a lot of upskilling not only for designers but across the supply chain to revolutionize how products are made. For instance, if products are made to be more durable, they can better support circular business models — such as clothing rental and preowned assortments — which rely on garments lasting through multiple uses and users. You can’t bring circularity to life with one business model on its own, it needs to be holistic and that is what our strategy brings forward.
How have you collaborated with to solve this problem?

We’ve been working with for a number of years. Most recently in the development of our redeZIGN collections, in which we offered training conducted by to over 200 colleagues including our private label designers and buyers, and tested the Circular Design Criteria to make these scalable and available for all brands. Based on’s Circular Design Criteria, we have adapted these to the existing Sustainability Criteria of Zalando, to provide brands consistency of requirements to ensure they are usable and accessible to all (e.g. by focusing on most used materials).
What is the difference between a sustainable and a circular product?

The criteria are built on three strategies that are aligned with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s circular design guidelines. Strategy  01 is that products are made with safe and recycled and/or renewable inputs, Strategy 02, that they are made to last longer, be repaired and potentially also carry digital product passports that allow for flow through circular business models, and Strategy 03, that they are made to be made again, so that they can actually be recycled or regenerated into new materials when they reach the end of life. Each of these break down into a number of specific criteria that have to be fulfilled depending on whether a MINIMUM or BETTER level is being achieved, for example required certificates such as chemical safety (ZDHC MRSL), organic cotton (GOTS), recycled content (GRS, RCS) etc.; limited fiber blending of 3 or fewer types; or a recycler’s declaration stating whether the product contains mainly post-consumer or pre-consumer recycled fibres. A more sustainable product (and our existing sustainability criteria) typically looks at the first piece of the puzzle – ensuring that garments are made from safe, recycled and renewable materials. Circular design is taking a holistic look at the entire product lifecycle, which is where we need to be headed as an industry.

What this means for our customers is that they can discover and buy a product that is made from certified materials, that the product has technical durability built into it — so it lasts longer — and we hope that it has a higher resale value because the durability lasts several life cycles of ownership. Lastly, they can be assured that the product goes back into making a new product or material. This is critical when you look at the principles of a circular economy, which is to eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value) and products and regenerate natural systems.

Will the criteria only be used for Zalando and its private labels?

Definitely not. We want to roll this out to our brand partners over the next months so that the positive effects can reach scale. To do this successfully we had to try things out in our private labels to get holistic feedback from brands and recyclers. We have also consulted with our public affairs team to align with upcoming regulations and make sure that the criteria would comply. Those conversations have enabled us to tweak certain elements of the criteria, so we have really taken a collaborative industry approach and that has strengthened it and made sure that we are not doing this in isolation. That’s what we have been doing over the last year, now we are at the point of readiness to launch it towards brands.

We are really excited about the opportunity for our brands to test this out. Many of our brand partners are already trialling circular principles in their design process. Over the next months our focus will be on enabling brands in using the criteria and updating the digital experience to reflect this new set of criteria.
How do these criteria align with the EU Textiles Strategy?

The EU textile strategy was launched at the end of last month. We welcome the publication of the Ecodesign regulation proposal as it will set an overarching framework to guide eco-design of products and therefore create common and reliable guidelines on sustainability requirements for fashion brands selling in the EU. The Circular Design Criteria are an essential building block in the direction of industry-wide environmental sustainability standards, as they are in line with the EU proposal. We look forward to participating in the development of what these EU criteria mean for fashion.

We also believe digitisation of sustainability information is key to empower consumers to buy more sustainably, and we would welcome the introduction of the Digital Product Passport for textiles, as already implemented in our redeZIGN collection. In our criteria, having the digital product passport attached to a product is part of the BETTER level. At the MINIMUM level, this data is still optional.
What further developments can we expect in future?

Currently, brands can fulfill the criteria based on a self-declaration, because there are no industry standards for circular design yet, apart from Cradle-to-Cradle CertifiedTM which we already accept as part of our sustainability criteria. We are supporting in introducing tools and processes to validate circularity claims. Certifications and standards exist for the first principle of materials and processes, but not yet for durability and recyclability. This is something that is working on.

Additionally, the criteria is for the apparel category, but we want to learn how these principles work to then create product design criteria for other items, like footwear. We would take a similar approach with the principles from the Ellen McArthur Foundation and translate them to be relevant for shoes. We are already part of some industry working groups, one of them being Accelerated Circularity, which has a shoe work stream that deals with how shoes can be sorted, disassembled and recycled.