How Zeeman is making sustainable fashion simple, affordable and mainstream

Summary & Key lessons

Although congratulating themselves is not part of their DNA, Zeeman has plenty of reasons to be proud. Being >50 years young, they were nominated for the 2020 sustainable retailer of the year award – other nominees being 21st century companies. They are transparent about all their production locations, member of Fair Wear and exceeding their targets on use of sustainable cotton. Impressive for any company, and especially for a clothing and textiles retailer that targets the mass market with a brand promise of low prices.

Their sustainable practices and positioning are starting to attract new groups of customers that did not previously shop at Zeeman. Plus: it has an impact on the environment, on the people throughout their value chain – and on their bottom line.

Traditional companies that want to incorporate sustainability into their way of working face different obstacles than startups that tackle this from their very start. But Zeeman shows it is possible. And more than that: it is good for business. Their manager of Sustainability (CSR & Quality), Arnoud van Vliet, is the current ‘Sustainable Manager of the year’ in the Netherlands. We spoke to him about Zeeman’s progress on sustainability, the trade-offs and about what’s next.

Our top three lessons from Zeeman are:

  1. Being “Zuinig” pays off (‘provident’ seems to be the least bad translation of this dual-meaning Dutch word): thread carefully, keep it simple & clear, no waste and frills. This has always been Zeeman’s approach and they manage to blend their brand promise and DNA perfectly with their vision on sustainable business: taking good care of planet and people and thereby making responsible products available and affordable for a large audience.
  2. Long-term relations & transparency lead to quality and sustainability: for many companies scary at first, being open about origin, value chain, practices (both great and ‘not-yet-great’) bears fruit by … . Building long-term relations reinforces this effect and leads to increased resilience also in times of crisis.
  3. Family ownership & modern leadership can pave the way: Zeeman has ‘quirkiness’ as a core value, and owners without an eye on the daily stock price. This was instrumental to integrate CSR into the core business. It enabled Zeeman to step up, stand out from the crowd and become a front-runner, inspiring others to take a more sustainable course.

For more lessons and insights, scroll down for the article. It is structured in line with The Wearth Company’s frameworks (the Value Creation Loop and the Sustainability Visor). It consists of 7 themes: Sustainability; the Why, the What, the How, With Whom, Trade-offs and Next Horizon.

1) Sustainability: what does it mean to Zeeman? And how is it relevant or useful to your business?

Arnoud: “Just like the previously dominant ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ (CSR), ‘sustainability’ is at risk of becoming a hollow label. It is used by many but understood by few.” For any business, ensuring a fantastic price-to-quality ratio in your products or services will remain crucial – when that is covered, sustainability becomes the differentiator.

There is a Dutch word “zuinig” that encapsulates Zeeman’s heritage and their view on responsible and sustainable business perfectly. On their international websites they even explain the term ‘zuinig’ and its Dutch dual meaning in French, Spanish, German etc.: there is no good translation [1]. One aspect is being economical, or mindful of how to spend money and resources. The other meaning is being respectful or careful – for instance with people, relationships, or how to treat the planet.

For Arnoud, to bring this into practice, focusing on transparency is a crucial element. Especially in textile and fashion, the most impact can be made through the network of suppliers. It is no coincidence that his role combines ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ & Quality, and is closely connected to manufacturing and procurement activities in the supply chain.

“Being transparent about production locations & practices can feel a bit daunting at first, but we found that for instance NGOs actually become more appreciative and supportive to help us go the next mile – instead of just pointing out what is not yet perfect.” (also see #5, With Whom)

[Footnote 1] The closest we got in English was the term ‘provident’. To all native speakers: would this cover both meanings sufficiently? If so, we will let Zeeman know, should they expand to the UK or beyond.

2) The Why: what triggered Zeeman, or you personally, to embark on a journey to become more sustainable as a company?

Arnoud: “Zeeman is a family business, and we are still true to our founder’s mission: “Decent clothing & textile need not be expensive”. Making sure every penny counts is part of our DNA. So being wasteful in any way, shape or form is not okay.” For Arnoud personally, Zeeman’s take on sustainably is easy to relate to: stewardship is one of his core values.

As with himself ten years ago, Arnoud sees that recruitment & retention of employees at all levels is an important part of Zeeman’s ‘Return on Sustainability’. “This link between Zeeman’s responsible values and personal values also played a role in search of a new CEO a couple of years ago”. Erik-Jan Mares joined, mostly due to sharing Zeeman’s core values and its long-term view on what a healthy textile company could look like (also see this interview).

3) The What: how do you create value – what differentiates you and where have you made most impact with sustainability so far?

Jan Zeeman originally started Zeeman as a Dutch retailer of affordable clothing & textiles. Although Zeeman still does that, they have evolved and expanded their activities over the years. More stores and revenue come from other European countries than from the Netherlands.

Beyond a retailer, Zeeman has increasingly become a brand. They design in-house, and although they don’t manufacture in-house, the partnerships with their contract manufacturers have grown a lot closer over time. Zeeman has successfully launched campaigns questioning why some major branded products are so expensive: sneakerswedding dresses and this year “Zeeman is selling air”, offering a no-frills no-brand perfume (shelves were emptied very quickly for all of these items).

According to Arnoud, the combination of this bold ‘anti-marketing’ and their sustainability practices and positioning, are starting to attract new customers now. It is effectively ‘slow fashion’

“Ecommerce is growing fast and covid-19 accelerated this. But for us this remains a challenge: at our price points, it is difficult to make up for the cost of logistics.”

TWC: “Are you considering circular business models, and what would that look like for Zeeman given your lower price points (compared to famous examples such as Patagonia, Mud Jeans, etc. – ed.)? Will it involve reparation, subscription, a ‘deposit-like’ model on clothing, vintage/pre-loved, or something completely different?” Arnoud: “Ha – yes, we are developing this in full swing. And are actually aiming to start a circular initiative. I would love to share more already; yet can only do so if it turns out to be feasible.”

Arnoud: “For our sourcing practices, we are bearing the fruit of integrating our commercial strategy with our sustainability strategy. Our buyers are trained and equipped to look at optimizing both short-term and longer-term value. Developing long-term relations (definitely not the norm in our industry!) helps here. It also means we can now create products that are more durable, keep their quality for longer and are therefore more valuable for our customers.”

“And on the other end of the value chain, we make sure we are never left with unsold stock in our stores. We might sell it at a discount, but we will never burn our products. Which is happening a lot in the industry and recently caught additional attention and discussion. Our ‘no-frills’ designs and ‘slow fashion’ approach (fewer unique SKUs) helps us avoid this.”

4) The How: In structuring and shaping the business, which element* is most differentiating for sustainable impact? What have you learnt along the way? *:

No single element jumps out for Arnoud when considering Zeeman’s journey so far.

Leadership did prove crucial to really connect the founding principle that “Good quality clothing & textile need not be expensive” to sustainable business principles; supply chain, quality, CSR and beyond. “When I was hired ten years ago, Zeeman was one of the first with a dedicated CSR position that is firmly rooted in the core business.” Minimum price was never the ultimate aim. Best ‘value for money’ at an affordable price point is. And Zeeman is now even more aware that this gives us plenty of room to make positive impact on planet and people.

Zeeman’s strategy is to take a step-by-step approach in expanding their sustainability efforts across operations. “First pilot in a store, a country; then scale up, and only then use it to position it with our customers and others externally. This careful approach paid off, in the sense that it has helped us learn quickly”, whilst allowing the outside world to get acquainted with this part of our identity.

Having the right metrics is important to keep improving. “To anchor progress, it is important to introduce performance metrics related to sustainability throughout the business. We have done this all the way to the CEO.”

We have received a lot of support along the way. A significant chunk of this comes from NGOs and industry coalitions. Together with others, we have made a lot of impact and progress through Fair Wear, the Dutch Textile ConvenantEthical Trading Initiative, and the Bangladesh / Transition Accord, to mention a few important ones. We work with these partners on ‘liveable wage’, worker safety, gender diversity, and origin & environmental standards of materials (mostly cotton).

“We have also published a map with our factory footprint (link) and a specific page  for every country where we produce. We now even mention and link to origin country on the labels inside our clothing! Even if not all our customers will actually check this out, we feel it is important to make it available”.

6) Trade offs: do you encounter trade-offs in balancing the 4-Ps (Planet; People; Profit; Participation) - and what are they?

An important trade-off is in collaborating with our manufacturing partners: instead of disqualifying them in case of issues, we work with them in looking for solutions – whilst requiring them to meet certain criteria by a certain deadline. Of course this depends on the urgency/severity of the issues. This means that we sometimes need to allow our partners some time to adopt new standards. However, it is because of the long term commitments that we make to our partners that they trust us throughout this process.

Related to this, we have seen our position amongst our industry peers shift. Earlier this century, we were comfortable in the middle of the pack. In the last ten years, we started to become frontrunners. Instead of expanding our lead and ‘winning the stage’ by a big lead, so to say, we are keen for ‘the pack’ to move in our direction. Because more impact can be made together, on a global scale we are just a tiny player. The trade-off? It means sometimes things do not move as fast as I or we at Zeeman would like. But this is well worth it, if the total impact is a lot bigger.

7) Next Horizon: what are your future sustainability ambitions and ways to make even more impact?

We aim to improve our ‘Return on Sustainability’ in a few ways, the most important ones:

  • Getting our story of sustainable/’zuinig’ Zeeman out there more broadly. We might be bold at times, but we are never cocky. For sustainability this sometimes means that ‘our story’ is still catching up with what we actually do. We are introducing ‘sustainability labels’ in our clothing, and are increasingly active on this topic in interviews, through awards et cetera. Of course we do this to show our (potential) customers and the market all the good things we are doing. But beyond that, we also would like to drive industry participation and inspire others by what we are doing.

Photos and visuals courtesy of: 

Interviewers: Willem Bijleveld & Casper ten KateThe Wearth Company & Collective. Part of the Wearth Sustainable Pioneers & Front-runner series, with a.o. ØrstedAce & TateYoni and Van Straten Medical. See more on LinkedIn & our imminently launching website (mid-December)

[1] The closest we got in English was the term ‘provident’. To all native speakers: would this cover both meanings sufficiently? If so, we will let Zeeman know, should they expand to the UK or beyond.

  • We have recently literally put all our factories ‘on the map’. The next step for us is to continue working with them to achieve even better working conditions, use of materials, and sustainable operations.
  • “As mentioned, we are defining what our circular agenda will look like” – Arnoud is looking forward to share more on this soon. (awaiting public announcement, see #4-WHAT, ed.)