Why do retailers need to care about sustainability?

    By Mel Wade, Strategy & Innovation Consultant at SPARCK

    Mel Wade

    Retailers must be ready for the critical tipping point when more consumers demand sustainable practices.
    We have all become familiar with the facts and stats that regularly appear and dominate the headlines. The most shocking include that fashion is the second largest polluting industry after oil; we use 400% more clothing today versus 20 years ago with more than half of fast fashion produced disposed of in under a year; by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea, with clothing a major contributor.

    These headlines are not going unnoticed by consumers, shown by more sustainable lifestyle changes. As of today, 5% of all UK households have a vegetarian and 1% a vegan, a 400% increase since 2014. This movement has contributed to consumers eating a total of 4.4 billion meat-free dinners in 2018 (an increase of 150 million meals from 2017), complemented by a movement towards helping create the circular economy with more common reuse and recycle campaigns appearing, and a 175% increase in the amount of vegan beauty products in the market in the last five years. It has even become prominent in social media with an increasing amount of Facebook and Instagram adverts focusing on sustainable products, such as bamboo toiletries.

    This shows that sustainability will become a bigger movement in the future with this explicit demand coming from the new generation (which was helped along by the phenomenal success of Blue Planet II). But this means that retailers must be ready for the critical tipping point when more consumers demand sustainable practices from them. They need to take it upon themselves to enter a conversation with consumers to educate them and create demand by providing desirable sustainable products and practices.

    Who is doing it well?

    We have seen multiple trailblazers in this area. For example, Bottle Top creating a recycle economy with their bags made of recycled ring pulls, Stella McCartney measuring their impact through a market leading ‘Environmental Profit and Loss’ tool, and Reformation providing ‘sustainable only’ clothing. We are also beginning to see established companies trying to be more environmentally friendly. IKEA are complementing the opening of their first ever sustainable store in Greenwich with a ‘rent a kitchen service’ to encourage the re-use of materials, and H&M have an in-store ‘repair and remake’ service.

    At the other end of the spectrum are companies that are just beginning their sustainable journey by making promises in lieu of actions. These are most commonly through the creation and signing of “commitments”. Some examples are Burberry and Marks & Spencer signing the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and ASOS creating their 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment.

    But it’s start-ups that seem to be the real innovators in this space. They are changing the materials we use, disrupting the supply chain and shifting our interaction with every day products, seen in sustainable fashion brand Rapanui enabling product tracking from seed to shop. A true leader in this space is Henri, a fashion retailer that focuses on mindful clothing manufacturing. The business model is based on having ‘staple’ sustainable wardrobe items bought at a premium to reduce waste, uses 100% organic cotton, openly focuses on providing disadvantaged women meaningful employment within the supply chain, and uniquely manufactures some products in her workshop next to her Hackney store.

    However, these game changing start-ups aren’t yet prominent enough across London to conveniently provide consumers with access to more sustainable choices. Whilst mostly online, Shoreditch and Hackney are the exceptions, providing the sustainable havens that beginning to pull consumers away from the fast fashion district of central London and respond to the growing sustainability trend. But with this increasing trend will come a wider store spread across London. So, if retailers do nothing and wait, will the start-ups start stealing more market share?

    The Forward-thinking Retailer

    Retailers' ability to predict and identify trends and therefore meet the demand that comes with them differentiates the leaders from the losers. They need to make seismic changes to their business to meet this growing consumer trend and need to do it now or it will be too late. If retailers don’t care about the environment, consumers won’t care about the retailers.

    Consumers are beginning to face a sustainability dilemma. On the one hand, they are becoming increasingly conscious of the environment and the impacts their actions have on it. On the other hand, they have deep set spending habits to break particularly around choice, price, convenience and value. So, how can retailers encourage consumers to spend more, less often, on higher quality sustainably sourced products?

    It’s retailers’ job to help consumers manoeuvre this dilemma, and gently nudge their behaviour into more sustainable actions. They play a pivotal role as they are the central point between demanding ethically and sustainably sourced materials from suppliers, whilst simultaneously creating additional consumer demand for such products - all of which contribute to creating a more circular economy.

    There are three ways they can do this:

    1. Review their value chain, including product designs and materials used
    2. Activate their brand to ensure that their sustainability values are prominent
    3. Educate their consumers on product lifecycle: from seed, to shelf, to waste

    BJSS can help you get on the front foot with quick wins and longer strategic solutions enabling consumers to make sustainable decisions and protecting your business for the future. To give you a flavour of what we’ve done in this space, you can watch a video of our winning Retail Week Hackathon entry here. An e-commerce chatbot that guides consumers decisions towards more sustainable products.