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.
CarbonQuota was originally launched to help increase the sustainability of production processes in the packaging and print sector. The organisation went on to develop one of the world’s largest independent databases of carbon emissions for the sector and the most granular carbon calculation engine.
We’ve appointed CarbonQuota to independently calculate the footprint of our operations and help us to achieve the international target for all organisations: reducing the footprint of our business (by 95%) and supply chain (by 50%) by 2030. It’s an ambitious aim and a complex undertaking, but we recognise the importance of minimising our environmental impact and we’re proud to say we’re already making positive progress.
Our latest CarbonQuota report shows that the CO2e emissions associated with our direct operations have reduced year-on-year, and we’ve therefore been certified as a carbon reduced operation by CarbonQuota.
In total, our carbon footprint decreased by 26 tonnes of CO2e between 2021 and 2022. One key area of improvement was with our electricity emissions, where changing our heating and lighting habits helped us to significantly reduce our output. The intensity of our CO2e emissions per million pounds of turnover saw a reduction of 17% during the same period, while there were also reductions per building footprint (m²) and per full-time employee.
CarbonQuota’s findings highlight how the efforts we’ve made to increase our energy efficiency and reduce our energy consumption are helping us to move towards our carbon reduction targets. We’re continuing to seek new ways to reduce our carbon footprint – such as our upcoming plans to bring our head office and warehouse together into one efficient, central location – and look forward to seeing the changes we’re making reflected in the data in the coming years.
Our Green Initiatives
We’re also continuing to champion sustainability across our business by changing our working practices, embracing innovation and pursuing sustainable solutions.
For example, we’re increasing the use of alternative materials in our product ranges, with display products made from cardboard, wood and organic fibres such as rice husk, corn starch and bamboo currently under development.
Our Ecovision and EcoPlastic ranges are also expanding to include a wider selection of sustainable products, while our famous Ecovision cardboard corr-a-clips continue to set the standard for recyclable display unit fixtures.
It’s great to see that our efforts to support sustainability and reduce our carbon footprint are beginning to show such positive results. Now that we’ve been named a carbon reduced operation, we’re eager to maintain this status and continue on our journey towards net zero.
 Carbon dioxide equivalent, the standard international measurement of carbon footprint.
 The CO2e emissions associated with our direct operations have reduced year-on-year (certified: CarbonQuota 2023).
 Our absolute operational CO2e emissions have reduced by 26 tonnes of CO2e from our baseline year (certified: CarbonQuota 2023).
 The intensity of CO2e emissions per million pounds of turnover associated with our direct operations have reduced by 17% between 2021 & 2022 (certified: CarbonQuota 2023).
As part of our commitment to continually improve our business practices and corporate social responsibility management, we are thrilled to announce that we have been awarded the Gold EcoVadis Sustainability Rating.
EcoVadis is a globally recognised sustainability ratings provider, focusing on providing businesses with the tools needed to improve their sustainability practises and effectively manage corporate social responsibility.
Essential for smart and responsible business, sustainability can be broken down into four key themes which businesses are then assessed on:
- Labour & Human Rights
- Sustainable Procurement
After achieving the Bronze rating in 2021 from EcoVadis, we followed the guidance detailed in our report and set out to significantly improve our policies and business practices in each of these four areas in order to achieve a higher rating for 2022. One of our key focuses was to become a carbon measured operation, which we achieved earlier this year by working with CarbonQuota.
This year’s report has identified that we are now ranked in the top 3% of companies rated by EcoVadis in our industry. But we won’t stop there.
We understand the effect that our business can have on the world around us and we care about working hard to minimise that impact as much as possible. Our new Gold Rating is an excellent acknowledgement that the work we are doing to improve is having an impact and serves as encouragement for us to take it even further.
We will be using this latest EcoVadis report to continue building on our corporate social responsibility policies and helping to champion a more sustainable future for the industry.
We are thrilled to announce that we are now a certified carbon measured operation. We are working with CarbonQuota to measure, reduce, and certify our carbon emissions in alignment with the Our Green Promise commitment we made to minimise our impact on the planet.
Current international targets require that, by 2030, all organisations must reduce their carbon footprint within their own business by 95%, and within their supply chain by 50%. We’re committed to achieving this target whilst acknowledging the complexity of such an undertaking.
Being one of the country’s leading suppliers of retail components and POS products, we understand how much plastic is used to create shelf management, price communication, and merchandising solutions in-store. That’s why we launched Our Green Promise, to pledge our commitment to helping minimise the environmental impact of such solutions, and why we have appointed CarbonQuota to drive this commitment even further by independently calculating the footprint of our operations.
CarbonQuota have been working with us this year to extensively identify and measure the carbon footprint of our direct operations. Following the collation of this data, we now have a detailed report which has determined our baseline, covering our full Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions, against which we can now build measurable carbon reduction goals and actively work to reduce our 2021 carbon hotspots. We have also started to assess our scope 3 emissions and plan to have this measurement fully completed within the coming years.
Since working with CarbonQuota, we have already started to explore more ways to reduce our carbon footprint by relocating our head office to a more central location which has reduced commuting distances and time for our colleagues by 35%. This is also encouraging more lift-sharing, cycle-to-work opportunities, and making the switch to electric company vehicles.
We are also continually developing our sustainable product material offerings to support these goals. Our 100% recyclable EcoPlastic range of POS components, which use a modified plastic polymer that breaks down into completely natural compounds, continues to expand. And our ground-breaking Ecovision range is also in development with some exciting announcements to come.
We’re proud of our achievements and product innovations to date, so to now have the initial ‘certification of operational carbon footprint assessment’ from CarbonQuota means it is time for us to work even harder to reduce our carbon emissions and encourage a more sustainable future for the industry.