Most of us would have shopped with Zalora before, with their dominant presence in the fashion landscape of Asia.
The rising awareness on the exploitative and environmentally destructive fashion industry has brought a sense of urgency, as we increasingly demand reform in the supply chain of fashion brands.
And earlier this year, Zalora responded to that urgency by publishing their Sustainability Strategy and commitments for the next 5 years. Now, they have made their first moves in their sustainability journey, launching the new Zalora Earth Edit.
I dig a little deeper.
But first a disclaimer. Zalora offered me a gift card to try out items from their Earth Edit, and I took it as an opportunity to review the tool and share my honest thoughts about the experience.
Here we go!
How It Works
The Earth Edit is a tool that curates more sustainable fashion choices from the Zalora catalogue.
It filters items that meet any of the 6 main criteria: Sustainable Materials, Fair Production Eco-Production, Animal Friendly, Community Engagement, and Pre-Loved
At a glance, I was fairly impressed with how the criteria defined were measurable and specific. They kept to a minimum standard that most conscious shoppers would welcome, relying on external certifications by reputable organisations like BCorp, PETA, and Leather Working Group to name a few.
While I think the tool is a great move to highlight better choices to shoppers, here’s a couple of things you should be aware of while shopping.
At the time of writing this article, the Pre-loved category is limited to Luxury items by a third party reseller and there were no available products listed under Fair Production and Eco-Production yet.
So let’s take a look at the other 3 categories:
Personally, I would prefer to shop the ‘Sustainable Materials’ range, as my main goal is to try and reduce the environmental impact of my purchases.
Material composition is only one part of the equation.
Producing a garment takes multiple processes where a lot of resources and many chemicals of various toxicity are used: from the cultivation of fibres, weaving, washing, scouring, dyeing, finishing etc. While a material is considered a better, more sustainable choice, it still has other implications. For example, organic cotton is infinitely safer for farmers and the land it is cultivated in in but remains resource-intensive to produce, and toxic chemicals may still added on during the dyeing and finishing process. Organic also does not automatically mean fair trade.
However, material composition is the most observable detail. Almost every garment tag will have that information, or you can venture a good guess by ‘feel’ most of the time.
So we can use the limited information we have to help us gauge the impact of a garment to try and make better choices.
Zalora’s criteria for ‘Sustainable Materials’ sets a reasonably high standard for materials (e.g. >75% recycled fibres or natural fibres known to be more sustainably favourable like Tencel and hemp or less harmful to farmers like organic cotton.
A lot of the items available in this category are noticeably from fast fashion brands like Mango and Cotton On.
We should encourage fast fashion brands to shift more of their product line and ultimately their business model to be more responsible. But personally, I prefer supporting brands that don’t motivate and market to consumers to overconsume with trendy products, regardless if they are made with materials of a lighter footprint.
Sustainability is also rooted in how we use a garment. If it is still regarded as ‘disposable’ fashion that is here for a trend and not to stay, it is not sustainable.
During my shopping experience, I also returned a garment which had an additional material component (nylon long sleeves) that wasn’t disclosed in an otherwise 100% organic cotton top. It would likely not have met the >75% criteria had it been accounted for. This was likely an exceptional case, but I can imagine garments with multiple components may not always be described in full and could accidentally be listed under the Earth Edit tool.
First off, ‘Animal Friendly’ does not automatically equal vegan, but it does feature mostly vegan fashion and beauty products!
It would have been tempting to throw any ‘faux leather’ product into the “Animal Friendly” range, and display thousands of options of polyurethane products.
However, Zalora has kept the polyurethane and other synthetic products listed here strictly to brands that are Vegan Certified i.e. even the adhesives and other components have no animal derivatives.
I think a lot of vegans would be happy with this!
Personally, I find polyurethane very problematic being a fossil-fuel derived product that employs a lot of harmful chemicals to produce. Polyurethane products also often does not last long and are not recyclable or compostable (though neither is leather). I’m sure many of us will be familiar with the peeling exterior of polyurethane products, destined to become landfill waste a couple of years after purchase.
But I understand that for vegans, animal welfare come first (as it should!) and they need alternatives.
So, I hope to see Zalora play a role in increasing access to alternative plant-based leather that employs production cycles that aren’t as harmful to the environment.
As for the non-vegan side of the ‘Animal Friendly’ range, they also have Responsible Down Certified and non-mulesed wool products, which are far more humane than traditional down and wool sources.
Most vegans prefer to stay off animal products all together, so if you are a vegan shopper, these are likely not for you. I would say make sure to check the material details, but vegans are very good at reading labels anyway :p
Animal byproducts like down, wool and leather are not ‘waste’ products of the animal agriculture industry, but rather supports it (which ultimately involves the slaughter of animals). It carries an economic value that contributes to the profitability of raising the animals to be harvested.
Even with certification that establish strict minimum standards, there is still a possibility (however remote) that unscrupulous companies can behave unethically and go undetected for some time. (PETA exposes ‘Responsible Down Standards’ Farm Still Live-Plucking Geese).
‘Community Engagement’ is defined as purpose driven businesses (BCorps or non-profits) OR donates 1% or more of its profit to charity or makes charity donations associated with purchase.
Purpose driven businesses are great! However, the latter is noticeably less stringent.
The 1% threshold is likely based off the “1% for the Planet” where companies pledge 1% of sales (whether or not they were profitable) and the “Pledge 1%” movement (where companies pledge 1% of equity, time, product or profit). Zalora has defined their criteria to at least 1% of profit.
However with ‘the charity donation associated with purchase’ criteria, this can leave a lot of wiggle room, allowing the criteria to possibly capture any fashion brand that makes a donation to any charity (whether monetary or in-kind).
Just like some of the “Corporate Social Responsibility” projects and donations we see in corporations, it is a way for businesses to gain goodwill by outsourcing the task of ‘creating positive impact’ to an external NGO or charity, instead of creating meaningful change within the business itself.
In order to bring systemic reform to the fashion industry throughout the supply chain, we cannot set the bar too low. We need the fashion industry to clean up its supply chains, not continue with ‘business as usual’ and make external donations.
I don’t believe it is Zalora’s intention to just let any business fall into the category, they likely won’t allow it in the internal brand review process. But perhaps it would inspire more confidence in a conscious shopper if the criteria were tightened, particularly with the donation associated with purchase.
I would suggest doing your own research into a brand instead of solely relying on the tool for this category.
Because the ‘Community Engagement’ category is a catch-all for both types, you would also have to click through each brand to find out if it was a Bcorp / non-profit or a “1% or a donation” type of business.
For example, while exploring the “Community Engagement” selection, I found several brands under a Bcorp called Australian Brands Alliance (Chancery, Tussah, The Fated, BWLDR, Calli, Willa) with all the brands claiming 187 trees planted per month to offset their emissions.
A quick browse brought up mostly garments made of synthetic materials in trendy styles.
Then let’s talk about tree planting for a minute.
While planting trees is generally a good idea, it has its drawbacks when used by commercial businesses to offset emissions. Critics have called tree planting exercises ‘a clever accounting trick and greenwashing, one that enable companies to continue ‘business as usual’ while appealing to customers.
Some companies may be tempted into complacency because planting trees enables them to claim carbon neutrality while making little meaningful change in their business.
My pet peeve is, tree planting can often be used as a marketing tool to spur more spending and overconsumption, with consumers believing they are ‘doing good’ by making a purchase.
The fact is planting trees do not remove or neutralize the harm that has already been caused by production. Trees capture carbon and are often planted somewhere else in the world.
It is not a straightforward debit/credit system.
Furthermore, trees do not grow overnight, so planting exercises do not realize their full carbon credit for many years, while the carbon impact is incurred immediately.
Don’t get me wrong, I love tree planting as much as the next person. It does a lot of good and has been a great conversation starter in the sustainability movement for many businesses. But it doesn’t stop there.
On the other hand, let’s look at a brand like Patagonia (a BCorp that used to be carried by Zalora).
They’re not afraid of championing anti-consumerist messaging. Their products are built to last, and Patagonia provides free repair for their products post-sale with their Ironclad Guarantee. Patagonia is bold and persistent in integrating sustainability into the heart of their business, giving us the full weight of the term ‘business for good’.
And for naysayers who claim going green hurts businesses and puts them at a disadvantage, think again. Patagonia’s business has grown to a billion-dollar company, raking in $1 billion in sales annually..
Admittedly, Patagonia and many other ethical brands set a high bar and are further on in their sustainability journey (though they too are not perfect and have room to grow)
But we should expect high ethical standards from businesses, and we need to continue to push the fashion industry to improve across the board. It’s not easy, but it is well worth pursuing, for the sake of our planet, its people and all living things.
So making a donation with each purchase on a fast fashion item should not be a standard we celebrate too quickly, especially when it has now been used pervasively as a marketing gimmick by countless brands, small and large.
What Would Be Great To See Moving Forward
The Earth Edit Tool is a great start to Zalora’s sustainability journey.
Reforming an existing fashion business with countless moving parts to become more sustainable is challenging. But it is a change that must happen and Zalora is in a prime position to lead the way towards a more sustainable future for the fashion industry here in Asia.
Here’s what I would love to see moving forward:
Increase Access to Sustainable Businesses and Alternatives
Currently, a large chunk of the Earth Edit range co-opts individual pieces from fast fashion brands that hit any one of the factors.
Subjectively, there is a tipping point when a brand shifts from being ‘fast fashion’ to ‘ethical fashion’, and I have no doubt we will see even fast fashion giants achieve that status one day.
In the meantime, I’d like to see Zalora onboard and introduce their customer base to more conscious brands with strong commitments to the environment and society, businesses we would be encouraged to support.
It would be great for Zalora to shine a spotlight on conscious brands that are setting an example who have built their business model around championing sustainable and ethical practices in the industry. They could also focus on regional and local brands making a difference, dispelling the misconception that innovation is only happening in Western countries.
This helps grow the awareness of the mainstream shopper in Asia of what they should expect from the brands they support, building a new generation of conscientious consumers.
Zalora could also form partnerships and invest in new technologies for sustainable materials like alternative plant-based leather or innovate clean, closed-loop production processes as a major fashion player backed by the resources and network of their parent company, GHG.
Zalora could not only play the role of curator for brands leading the way in sustainability but be an incubator for the next wave of innovation in sustainable fashion.
Address Plastic Waste and Overconsumption
Plastic Packaging Is A Big Problem.
I knew making an order would be devastating for me.
I anticipated the plastic waste typical to online shopping. The single use wrapping around each individual piece. Several parcels arriving at different times instead of one parcel with all the items in the order.
But I was not prepared for plastic disposable hangers to show up with every piece of underwear I ordered. These are typically used in retail stores and serve no purpose in an online order. Nor would it be useful to be reused as the hanger is too small for other garments and generally people don’t hang up their underwear for display in their personal closets .
I don’t have the answers to plastic. Zalora is in a tricky position, with the logistical challenge of managing thousands of items and vendors.
But some ideas for low-hanging fruit in reducing plastic waste are:
- It would be incredible to see Zalora take the lead in educating their vendors on reducing the unnecessary plastic that comes with each garment, like the display hangers for underwear and this label wrapped in plastic I found. Eliminate the plastic at source.
- Explore package-less for Zalora’s in-house brand. A great candidate is their new “Origin by Zalora” label, the collection has smaller volume and there is presumably a direct line of communication between Zalora and the garment factory it is produced in. I have seen smaller conscious brands remove individual plastic packaging from source, and that could be a start.
However, we welcome a win for Zalora!
A few months ago, my fellow activists and I reached out to Zalora about our concerns on their oxo-degradable parcel packaging. Oxo-degradable plastics have been condemned and banned globally as they pose significant environmental risk. These plastics do not biodegrade safely in the environment and are unsuitable for long-term reuse, recycling or composting. Oxo-degradable is arguably more harmful to the environment than regular virgin plastic as they break apart quicker to create microplastics.
The four of us had a great conversation with Zalora’s Head of Sustainability about alternative measures and plans for Zalora’s sustainability commitments.
And lo and behold, I’ve already received one of those bags in my order! I got a little update recently; they have started sourcing recycled plastic content for their parcel bags and are piloting this across South East Asia. I’m looking forward to seeing the recycled plastic parcel bags fully replace the oxo-degradable bags.
How I Would REALLY Use The Earth Edit Tool
Nothing in this world is perfect.
While we continue to hold fashion brands and platforms like Zalora accountable and demand better, remember it is our responsibility to shop mindfully.
Overconsumption, even of products that were made more responsibly, is not sustainable.
Most fashion in the market also do not hit multiple criteria so there are still negative implications to any purchase. A garment made of “sustainable” material may not be fair trade, vegan leather may be fossil-fuel based. And plastic packaging is still prevalent in all of them.
Rethink your purchase, consider if you truly need it.
The most sustainable outfit is the one already in your wardrobe. Or shop someone else’s (former) wardrobe by sourcing secondhand if you can.
The great upside to sourcing secondhand is it is often already plastic free (or you may request it to be) and creates no further impact from production.
Thrift, swap, borrow.
If you do buy new, research and support brands that truly use their business for good.
Zalora’s Earth Edit is helpful as an initial filter of items you may like to consider on their site. After that, it is up to you to decide.
What I Ended Up Buying
Honestly given my minimalist and zero waste lifestyle, this shopping credit gave me a little anxiety.
I overanalyze any shopping decision; researching an item’s sourcing, packaging, ethical implications, and overall environmental impact. So sourcing secondhand alleviates a lot of personal responsibility knowing I’m not contributing any more harm than absolutely necessary.
So if I had to buy new, what would I buy?
Underwear! One of very few types of fashion I won’t be sourcing secondhand!
I keep a wish list I try to source secondhand. I put off buying new for as long as I can. Some of the items have been on my wish list for years, waiting for the right candidate to come along.
I thought this would be an opportune time to get some of them.
However after reassessing, I kept the underwear and returned almost everything, even the ones on my wish list.
Returns are just as harmful, and it is practically synonymous with online shopping, isn’t it?
- Some didn’t quite wear the way I expected.
- Looking at a pile of stuff entering my life made me anxious
- The plastic sin was too big for me to bear and I regretted it
I can wait a little longer while searching for secondhand options and make do with what I have.
But when the sneakers I wear daily falls past the point of repair, I might order a pair of Vejas on Zalora’s Earth Edit.