Skip to main content Skip to main navigation

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

| Press release | Trade & Logistics | Environment & Energy | Marine Perception | Osnabrück / Oldenburg

Dress well with a clear conscience: When shopping online, customers are increasingly paying attention to whether products are fairly traded and sustainable. However, it is not always easy to recognize this: certifications, seals and other sustainability claims are often confusing and non-transparent. A consortium of research and practice partners has been looking for solutions in the ZuSiNa project ("Better access and visibility of sustainability information in online retail mation"). In an online guide, Fraunhofer ISI, Fraunhofer IAO, ConPolicy and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) present their findings and provide technical and AI-based solutions.

Sustainability has many facets in the textile sector: For example, environmental sustainability depends 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 production conditions, workers' rights and the avoidance of child labor. However, consumers have often searched in vain for such information on certain products when buying fashion online.

The ZuSiNa research project has been investigating why this is the case, and how sustainability information could be strengthened in online retail since March 2022. The project is funded by the Federal Ministry for the Environment as an AI lighthouse project.

Which dimensions 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 social manufacturing conditions, such as the use of child or forced labor, is of particular interest. In the ecological area, those characteristics that directly affect consumers, such as the durability of an item of clothing or the use of chemicals in production, are particularly relevant to purchasing.

A textile score for sustainability communication in online retail?

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

The Nutri-Score, which indicates the nutritional value of a product on a colored scale with the letters A to E, already exists for food. In the textile sector, a score indicating the degree of sustainability of an item of clothing would be conceivable. However, there is currently a lack of standardized data and methods for assessing the sustainability of textiles.

As part of ZuSiNa, the participating scientists analyzed the effect of such a (fictitious) textile score on the attitudes, knowledge and decisions of consumers. In a representative online experiment with more than 2,000 people, they investigated whether the exemplary presentation of a textile score fulfills customers' need for information and encourages them to buy sustainable garments.

In the experiment, the purchase intention for sustainable T-shirts actually increased when they were awarded a textile score. The level of information about sustainable products was quite similar for all types of sustainability communication tested. However, the textile score was perceived as far more credible - especially when it contained a legend on the sustainability dimensions assessed. The project was able to show that a multi-level textile score would be effective in motivating people to make more sustainable purchasing decisions.

Technical integration of seals in online stores has often been cumbersome to date

In the experiment, the scientists were also able to demonstrate an increase in interest in sustainable textiles when recommending sustainable alternative products with eco-labels. However, information on which products are certified with which seals often has to be researched and integrated manually by online retailers and comparison portals. A central interface for linking certifications with product numbers, for example, is still missing.

Together with practical partners such as 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. Seal 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-supported solutions are also available for displaying more detailed information that goes beyond the mere display of seals. 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 scientific publications that are considered credible and automatically displays information on the sustainability of clothing brands based on the data obtained. By further developing this tool, online stores could supplement the content of their websites in the future or customers could find out about the sustainability of a brand.

Far-reaching initiative and international networking required

The scientists conclude that a wide variety of players need to be brought together across Europe - manufacturers, retailers, sustainability initiatives and consumer organizations.

The aim should be to shift from many different individual solutions to 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 support. "Above all, however, we need a binding legal framework," says Dr. Miriam Bodenheimer, research associate at Fraunhofer ISI: "Politicians have already taken a very important step with the Green Claims Directive. Now it is important that not only misleading greenwashing claims are legally prevented, but that social claims are also closely scrutinized. This urgently requires uniform, reliable labeling."

[Press release from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI]

For more information visit