Buying sustainable clothing: How consumers can be better informed when shopping online

Dressing well with a clear conscience: When shopping online, customers are increasingly paying attention to whether products are fair and sustainable. However, it is not always easy to recognize this, there is often a lack of clarity and transparency when it comes to certification, labels and other sustainability claims. A consortium of research and industry partners has been looking for solutions in the ZuSiNa project ("Besserer Zugang und Sichtbarkeit von Nachhaltigkeitsinformationen im Online-Handel", Better access and visibility of sustainability information in online retail). In an online guide, Fraunhofer ISI, Fraunhofer IAO, ConPolicy and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) present their results and provide technical and AI-based solutions.

Im Projekt ZuSiNa (»Besserer Zugang und Sichtbarkeit von Nachhaltigkeitsinformationen im Online-Handel«) haben sich Forscher:innen damit befasst, wie Kund:innen beim Online-Shopping besser über die Nachhaltigkeit von Kleidungsstücken informiert werden könnten.
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In the ZuSiNa project, researchers looked at how customers could be better informed about the sustainability of clothing items when shopping online.

In the textile sector sustainability has many facets: Environmental sustainability depends, for example, on the materials and chemicals used, water consumption and the handling of toxic waste. The social sustainability of clothing and other textiles depends on factors such as working conditions, workers' rights and the avoidance of child labor. However, consumers have often looked in vain for such information on specific products when buying fashion online.

Since March 2022, the ZuSiNa research project has been investigating why this is the case and how sustainability information could be strengthened at the online point of sale. The project is funded by the German Ministry for the Environment as an AI lighthouse project.

Which aspects of sustainability are of particular interest to customers?

In a survey of 1873 participants, the researchers determined which sustainability information consumers find particularly important when buying clothing online.

The results show that information on the social aspects of production, such as the use of child or forced labor, is of particular interest. When it comes to environmental factors, those characteristics that directly affect consumers, such as the durability of a garment or the use of chemicals in production, are especially relevant to customers.

Is a textile score the solution for the communication of sustainability in online retail?

Whether using labels, symbols, filters or color highlighting: There are various approaches for providing information about the sustainability of products on the internet. Surveys show that there is a definite need for simplification and reliable guidance in order to differentiate between credible sustainability information and advertising claims (including greenwashing).

The Nutri-Score already exists for food, indicating the nutritional value of a product on a colored scale using the letters A to E. In the textile sector, a score indicating the degree of sustainability of an item of clothing could be used in a similar way. However, there is currently a lack of standardized data and methods for evaluating the sustainability of textiles.

As part of ZuSiNa, the participating scientists analyzed the effect of such a (fictitious) textile score on the attitudes, awareness and decisions of consumers. In a large online experiment with more than 2,000 people, they investigated whether the sample illustration of a textile score fulfills customers' information needs and motivates them to buy sustainable garments.

Results of the experiment showed that the intention to buy sustainable T-shirts increased when they were labeled with a textile score. The level of information about sustainable products was quite similar across all the types of sustainability communication tested. The textile score, however, was perceived as far more credible, especially when it included a legend for the sustainability aspects being assessed. The project was able to show that a multi-level textile score would be effective in motivating people to make more sustainable purchasing choices.

It has often been complicated to incorporate technical labels into online stores in the past

In the experiment, the scientists were also able to demonstrate an increased interest in sustainable textiles when recommending alternative sustainable products with eco-labels. Until now, however, online retailers and comparison websites have often had to manually research and integrate information on which products are certified and with which labels. A single interface is still not available to link certifications with product IDs, for example.

Together with industry partners, including manufacturers, retailers and certification organizations, the ZuSiNa project has developed a prototype data interface that online stores can use to retrieve and display reliable and item-specific information on the certification of textiles. Label organizations can integrate this interface, which is available as an open source application, into their systems free of charge.

AI could automatically provide sustainability information when shopping online

Technical and in some cases AI-assisted solutions are also available for providing more detailed information that goes beyond the mere display of labels. Various approaches were considered in the ZuSiNa project.

The result is the prototype of an AI algorithm that evaluates reports from selected non-governmental organizations and credible scientific publications. Based on the data obtained, information on the sustainability of clothing brands is automatically displayed. This tool could be further developed to allow online stores to supplement the content of their websites in the future or for customers to find out about the sustainability of a brand.

Taking initiative and international networking are required

The researchers conclude that a wide variety of stakeholders need to be brought together across Europe, including manufacturers, retailers, sustainability initiatives and consumer organizations.

The aim should be to shift from a wide range of individual solutions to a uniform sustainability communication, for example using a textile score or standardized product information. The planned EU-wide digital product passport could play a role here, and artificial intelligence can also provide assistance. "Above all, however, we need a binding legal framework," says Dr. Miriam Bodenheimer, senior researcher at Fraunhofer ISI: "With the Green Claims Directive, policymakers have already taken a very important step. What is important now is not only to legally prevent misleading greenwashing claims, but also to closely examine social claims. This urgently requires standardized, reliable labeling."


Public conference in Berlin

On May 14, 2024, the final ZuSiNa project conference will take place at the Fraunhofer Forum in Berlin. The conference will offer the opportunity to exchange ideas with representatives from politics, business, research and civil society in several workshops and a panel discussion. 

Registration (in German) is now open via the Fraunhofer IAO website.

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The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.

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