Over the last several years, sustainability in retail has grown from an important talking point into an essential part of every company’s strategy. It’s a change that’s been largely driven by consumer sentiment, with more and more modern customers not only wanting to buy sustainable products, but wanting to buy them from retailers with strong environmental credentials.
The pressure is on companies to respond to this change and embrace sustainability, but in a way that’s transparent, authentic and answers consumer needs. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at sustainability in the retail space, explore why attitudes have changed and investigate the steps retailers can take to become more sustainable.
How have consumer attitudes toward sustainability changed?
While there’s always been a subset of consumers that sought sustainable alternatives and favoured companies with strong ethical reputations, these sentiments have become significantly more mainstream in the last few years.
The 2022 Deloitte survey on consumer attitudes revealed that 64% of consumers had limited their use of single-use plastic in the last 12 months (an increase of 3 percentage points on 2021).
59% of respondents had reduced the amount of new products and goods they’d bought (+ 20 pp), while 40% had chosen brands that had environmentally sustainable practices/values (+ 6 pp).
Other areas of significant growth included opting for low carbon emission and/or shared modes of transport (30%, + 11 pp) and choosing brands that had ethical practices/values (37%, + 7 pp).
What makes this shift in attitude particularly interesting is that it may not have been a conscious choice for many consumers in the beginning. As the Deloitte survey observes, the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic saw people using transport less, shopping more locally and shopping more seasonally – all activities that led to a more sustainable lifestyle by default.
This trend of real-world events shaping customer behaviour continued in 2022, with disrupted supply chains and the cost of living crisis leading consumers to search for various creative ways to spend less.
For example, 53% of respondents reported that they had repaired or fixed an item instead of replacing it with a brand new equivalent one, and 40% had bought second-hand or refurbished items.
But whatever the reasons behind the shift in the consumer mindset, it’s clear that retailers are facing growing expectations from their customers that need to be addressed. However, while it’s easy to argue that retailers simply need to champion sustainability in order to respond to these expectations, the reality of the situation is a little more complicated.
What challenges are retailers facing in terms of sustainability?
Transforming a retail business into one that’s recognised and respected for its commitment to tackling climate change isn’t easy. Sustainability is often seen as a laudable but expensive goal, where significant upfront investments can take a long time to pay off, and some retailers may feel they’re not in a position to make such commitments.
The government is also taking an increasingly firm stance on the issue, launching several schemes that aim to encourage sustainability within the sector. However, the reaction from leading brands has been mixed, with many arguing that these schemes will lead to higher costs for retailers and consumers alike.
Then there are the consumers themselves. A recent report by Savills found that while 80% of consumers described themselves as environmentally friendly, 75% also said that they wouldn’t pay a premium for green products.
This paradox of intent versus actions when it comes to sustainability is one that’s commonly reported within the retail industry and leaves retailers in an unenviable position.
As does the fact that there’s clear scepticism from consumers around brand sustainability claims, which can too quickly lead to accusations of ‘greenwashing’ (where retailers make unsubstantiated and potentially false claims to portray themselves as environmentally friendly).
Savills found that 70% of consumers expected brands to do more about sustainability, but only around 30% believed that retailers would hold true to their sustainability promises.
Meanwhile, nearly half of Deloitte respondents said they didn’t know what information to trust when it came to a business’s sustainability claims (25%) or that nothing could influence how much they’d trust a business’s commitment to sustainability (21%).
So with these challenges in mind, what can retailers do to overcome them?
How can retailers champion sustainability?
With sustainability becoming such a critical issue in the industry, retailers big and small are launching forward-thinking initiatives, implementing impressive changes and committing to ambitious targets in order to reduce their impact on the planet.
Aldi will soon give customers the chance to recycle their used own label coffee pods at collection points, while Sainsbury’s recently launched cardboard laundry detergent packaging. The Perfume Shop has rolled out a new and improved perfume bottle recycling scheme across its stores nationwide, and Tesco has installed EV charging points at 600 stores over the last three years.
Add in the fact that the UK’s biggest supermarkets recently signed up to an ‘unprecedented’ collaboration in order to combat climate change, and it’s clear how seriously the retail industry is taking the sustainability challenge.
Of course, not every change needs to be a huge, headline-grabbing one. There are plenty of smaller steps that retailers of all sizes can take to embrace sustainability in a way that works for them:
- Track their current carbon emissions to identify hotspots
- Explore ways to make their supply chain more efficient
- Consider energy-efficient approaches, equipment and energy tariffs
- Switch to local suppliers
- Look into sustainable packaging alternatives (and reduce or remove packaging entirely)
- Offer a recycling or takeback scheme related to their products
Whatever actions retailers choose to take, communicating about their achievements is a key part of responding to the growing consumer interest in sustainability. The statistics we quoted earlier show that brands can often face an uphill battle in this regard – particularly with sectors such as fast fashion regularly facing accusations of greenwashing – but authenticity and transparency can go a long way.
Setting achievable goals and having the evidence to back up any claims that are made are other important factors to consider as they can add a further level of credibility. Retailers will often team up with an organisation like B-Corp, which measures and evaluates the environmental and/or social impact of a company’s activities, in order to obtain official recognition of their progress against their targets.
Being transparent, setting realistic goals, making statements that can be substantiated and partnering with an evaluator are all ways that retailers can help to overcome the doubts consumers may have around the authenticity of sustainability claims in retail.
How are we improving the sustainability of our business?
Here at Harrison, we’re proud to say that we’ve partnered with CarbonQuota to measure, reduce and certify our carbon emissions. We were recently certified as a carbon reduced operation, which is a great reflection of the steps we’ve taken to reduce the carbon footprint of our organisation.
We’ve also undertaken a series of assessments from EvoVadis as part of our commitment to continually improving our business practices and corporate social responsibility management. This led to us being awarded a Gold EcoVadis Sustainability Rating in 2022.
In terms of products, our sustainable range continues to expand. We’re increasing our use of alternative materials like cardboard, wood and organic fibres in our display products, and both our Ecovision and EcoPlastic ranges are due to welcome new additions in the near future.
We’re also developing a new closed-loop plastic takeback scheme for data strips and look forward to sharing more information about that service in the coming months.
Speak to a member of our team to find out more about what sustainable products and services we have on offer.
Achieving greater sustainability in the retail sector is going to take time. But with rising demand from consumers and growing commitment from retailers, there’s been a distinctive shift in attitudes within the last couple of years.
Positive changes can now be seen at both individual company levels and across the wider industry, and long may this trend continue.