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Mike Mulligan

Head of Product Personalisation, Zalando

A career in the fashion industry need not mean abandoning your ethical principles. There are fashion companies which have pledged to support sustainability.

The fashion industry has mostly had a poor record on sustainability but that’s changing. “We’ve discovered that sustainable ways of working attract and retain good customers – and employees. What’s good for the planet is good for business too,” says Mike Mulligan, Head of Product at global e-retailer Zalando, which has a Tech Hub office in Dublin.

Zalando’s founders believed in sustainability themselves, so they pledged to make the business as sustainable as possible from the start. It aims to generate 25% of gross merchandise volume from more sustainable products by 2023, and as it works with over 5,800 brands and has almost 49 million customers that’s a big impact.

Personalisation increases sustainability

How are they achieving this? Personalisation is one of the key elements. The company uses machine learning to personalise the items it suggests to customers, based on their browsing behaviours. “Offering the kind of fashion items that a customer is more likely to choose means returns are reduced, so that cuts down CO2 emissions,” says Mulligan.

It also attaches a green ‘sustainable’ tag to items on its site. Here the product description explains how it is more sustainable. “It could be made in a way which conserves water or reduces emissions, or with recycled materials,” says Mulligan. If a customer shows increased interest in sustainability, personalisation means such products are likely to be suggested more often.

The flagged products fulfil at least one of Zalando’s required criteria, which are based on the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index and Textile Exchange’s Preferred Fiber and Materials List, as well as minimum content requirements for those materials (so a cotton t-shirt needs to contain at least 50% organic cotton). The accepted materials and processes are certified to third-party environmental, animal welfare and social standards. 

“We are making it easier for customers to buy fashion that fits with their values,” says Mulligan.

The best candidates for our jobs are attracted by our commitment to sustainability.

An ethical choice for employees

“The best candidates for our jobs are attracted by our commitment to sustainability – they tell us so in job interviews,” says Mulligan. “Driven by grass-roots enthusiasm, we have a sustainability team in our Berlin head office that examines all of our plans and processes to check they fit in with our sustainability, diversity and inclusion goals.”

He adds: “It means our employees can be proud to tell family and friends that they work in the fashion industry and are helping the planet too.”

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