Ethical and sustainable retailing is being driven by increasing regulatory and consumer pressure. In the UK, this year’s high profile Extinction Rebellion protests and the Schools Strike for Climate Action have clearly signalled to government and businesses that growing numbers of the general public urgently demand change to cut carbon emissions and reduce global warming. In particular, young people – retailers’ all-important future consumers – are demanding a sustainable future. Can retailers make a difference?
Cutting retail’s carbon footprint
This was at the heart of the panel discussion hosted on 2 May 2019 at RetailEXPO in London. Participants included representatives from the world’s second largest clothing retailer H&M, online fashion operator Farfetch, DIY and homewares group Kingfisher, and the BRC.
Giorgina Waltier, Sustainability Manager, UK & IE, H&M spoke enthusiastically about how the Swedish clothing giant has embraced ‘sustainability’ as an operational and marketing strategy, with a plan to remove any negative impact on the environment caused by its operations in the coming years, and promote itself as a caring retailer.
“It’s not just about offering apparel recycling collection points in stores. We have sustainability embedded throughout our value chain,” said Waltier. “That means for every one of our 2,000 supplier factories we have a sustainability manager on the ground to ensure the facilities are being operated appropriately. Already 57% of the materials we use in clothing production is recycled or from a sustainable source and this is growing rapidly.” Waltier says a lot of work goes into communicating this good work to customers, and encouraging them to recycle their clothes through the stores.
How far can retailers go when it comes to sustainability?
H&M stops short of encouraging shoppers to buy less, which is one powerful recommendation of today’s environmentalists.
At least consumers are being given more opportunities to make ethical choices in what they buy suggested Thomas Berry, director of sustainable business at online luxury fashion marketplace Farfetch. His view is that retailers are facilitating this as best they can without losing focus on encouraging general spend on fashion and beauty.
He said a product’s sustainability credentials are increasingly the factor behind some consumers’ purchasing decisions, and that shoppers often want to align themselves to a brand that has ethically-sound values.
Encouraging the ‘right’ consumer choices
“Consumers are looking for a positive story in what they are buying,” he said. “They want more than a T shirt. They want to feel an emotional connection to what they are selecting.”
Farfetch launched ‘The Conscious Edit’ in April, as part of its goal to help consumers “think, act and choose positively”. It teamed up with independent agency, Good On You, to rate brands on their environmental, social impact and animal welfare credentials.
The Conscious Edit – which has its own section on the Farfetch website and sees applicable products and brands clearly labelled online – is the start of a more concerted commitment by the retailer to highlight and showcase more sustainable fashion, according to Berry.
Green products pushed to the fore
Caroline Laurie, Head of Sustainability, Kingfisher Plc, suggested that in some cases retailers can make it easy for consumers by offering more and more ‘green’ product options, perhaps even completely removing those that aren’t. “Every tap we offer is ‘low flow’ now. Consumers often don’t have time to consider and choose, so we step up and range edit to make their life choices easier.”
She outlined how Kingfisher is helping customers to reduce their energy use. For instance, B&Q offers a range of energy saving products and services from insulation to light bulbs and efficient appliances. These our energy saving products enable customers to reduce their home energy use by almost a third – 32%. “We are working towards 50% by 2025,” confirmed Laurie.
A green future in retail? Look 10 years ahead
Peter Andrews, Head of Sustainability Policy, British Retail Consortium said retailers should focus on supply chain efficiency, and reduced packaging and plastics use to vastly improve their carbon footprint. “You need to think about what your business needs to look like in 10 years’ time and work back from there,” said Andrews.
On the issue of ‘greenwashing’, Laurie at Kingfisher said now is the time to be honest with consumers. The days of publishing big corporate statements are over, because consumers are often too sceptical about what is realistically being done. “It’s best to be transparent, and humble. At this stage in retail we can’t get it all right, but we can be honest and clear about what we are trying to achieve to lessen our impact on the environment.”