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Sustainability is fast becoming a key success factor for fashion brands and retailers, but big tech could already be pulling ahead.

This week saw the publication of some interesting research that simultaneously underlines and challenges the idea that sustainability is influencing consumers’ buying decisions. Put together by Google and Basis Research, the survey evaluated the opinions of 4,000 shoppers here in the UK to try and quantify how different factors affected their perception of fashion brands’ and retailers’ sustainability credentials.

At first glance, the key trends seem to conflict with one another. First, a majority of shoppers reported that they actively sought out more sustainable fashion products. Second, only a very small minority of consumers (less than 10%) believe they have a strong understanding of what actually constitutes a sustainable product.

This is an area where The Interline, before being presented with this data, would have expected to see different results. As part of our sustainability focus this month, we have published interviews with the Co-Founders of sustainable brand tentree and industry watchdog and discovery platform Good On You – both of whom represent organisations that stand out because they present shoppers with quite granular information, and then trust them to make their own informed decisions. The emphasis in both cases is on an empowered consumer who is invested enough in sustainability to have looked into the different factors that contribute to it – from material composition to carbon offsetting.

This is quite a contrast to the results of the Google / Basis survey, which indicates that shoppers are instead happy to cede the responsibility for understanding the ins and outs of the sustainability equation to what the research calls “proxies”. These are independent auditing, certification, and standards bodies such as Fairtrade, and potentially more B2B oriented ones such as the Higg Index.

The presence of a proxy label is, according to the research, the strongest-weighted factor in a consumer’s opinion of whether or not a product “seems” sustainable – providing an uplift of 8% in the shopper’s perception of the quality of a product.

For a metric like sustainability, where transparency is inarguably essential, adding a third party to the mix feels counterintuitive; however unimpeachable that third party’s data collection and analysis techniques, and however unbiased its conclusions, it is still a separate body that comes between the source of sustainability information – the brand or retailer – and the recipient, the consumer.

(NB: This is not to downplay the crucial role that standards and certification bodies have played in raising awareness of ethical and environmental issues.)

The same research, though, suggests that this comforting reliance on standards bodies may be short-lived, since Google refers to them as “shortcuts” that may become unnecessary as consumers become better-informed over time.

But for the time being, this is the direction the prevailing wind is blowing, as evidenced by this week’s unveiling of Amazon’s new Sustainability Pledge Friendly certification – an in-house standard developed in partnership with a wide array of other certification organisations, including the Responsible Wool Standard and the Global Organic Textile Standard.

This is more than likely an area where Amazon could have forged ahead solo. Its operational, technological, and supply chain processes are rigorously controlled and overseen, and it would have been entirely possible – although not necessarily easy – for the company to pioneer a radical level of transparency by opening up real visibility into the way it works.

But as the Google research demonstrates, this may be what analysts and industry commentators expect of a tech giant, but it is clearly not what the market wants – at least not today. And as significant as the strides the industry has made towards mitigating its environmental and ethical impacts have been, sustainability remains as much of a PR problem as it is a technical one.

image courtesy of amazon / rivian

From this angle, Amazon has a clear will to act. Both it and Walmart made the news this week with large-scale sustainability pledges that include electrification of their delivery fleets, a switch to renewable energy, and in Amazon’s case a commitment to net zero carbon emissions twenty years from today.

As is often the case with public outpourings of support for sustainability, though, this commitment follows news from earlier this summer that Amazon’s carbon footprint had risen 15% year on year. And as the company scales its retail operations dramatically – hiring up to a quarter of a million new technical and operational staff between March and the end of 2020 – to deal with the increase in demand from the pandemic’s shifting consumer preference to online shopping, that mandate to improve is clearly a response to a very real and very present issue.

But while Amazon may be shying away from a completely radical approach to transparency, this week’s public pledge is still significant for its scope and its scale. Outside of fashion, Amazon’s own new devices (announced yesterday across the Echo and Ring range) are being made from reclaimed plastics and other recycled materials, and Alexa will soon offer an energy dashboard for smart home devices. Amazon is clearly betting on customers continuing to care.

And this is a trend that is definitely not exclusive to consumer electronics. The Google / Basis survey’s most striking finding was that search interest in “sustainable fashion” has risen dramatically in the last four years. And at the same time, the data draws a correlation between the way consumers perceive sustainability and the way they perceive quality. More sustainable products are, in the customer’s eyes, better products.

It’s entirely possible that The Interline is being too skeptical here, but armed with both that knowledge and with its own aggregate certification, Amazon is in a position to start imbuing its own-brand products (of which there are now a huge number in fashion) with that aura of quality by designing them specifically to meet its in-house standard. Which products will then be prioritised in searches when a consumer expresses a preference for sustainable alternatives?

While any effort to improve the ability for consumers to find more ethical, and more environmentally-sound products is commendable, we would be surprised if Amazon’s private labels did not percolate to the top when people search by those criteria. Followed closely by marketplace sellers

If this seems a needlessly dim view, remember that Amazon owns a majority (anywhere from 55% to 75%) of all product search volume, and that giving it control of what does and doesn’t qualify as sustainable – at least in the consumer’s mind, where third party certifications are the key – will fundamentally alter the sustainability picture for online shopping.

In this context, alternative discovery platforms and curated edits are going to be essential for smaller DTC brands that want to make their own audacious commitments to sustainability heard.