Sustainability in retail remains an important concern for consumers. From pre-used and vintage items, to low-impact packaging, to traceable origins, people have become more conscious of how their lifestyle and shopping habits affect the planet – and they expect businesses to do their part.
Retailers must show that they are seriously listening, and take clear action.
Here are eight ideas to invigorate your own sustainability strategy, appeal to more consumers and help the planet along the way.
1. Source more sustainable products and brands
From footwear brands Veja and Allbirds to LA fashion-brand Reformation, there’s a new generation of businesses setting the standard for sustainability. These companies are leading the charge in environmental fashion and gaining mass followings along the way thanks to their ability to marry cool styling with strong eco-friendly credentials.
This kind of movement is not just happening in fashion. In the consumer goods space, new independent companies are making waves by appealing to consumers with their strong ethics, total transparency and sustainable business models. UK smoothie brand Innocent Drinks is a great example. It has built its reputation on making simple, natural, healthy drinks, and is also a certified B Corporation (a voluntary audit carried out by global non-profit organization B Lab, which assesses companies’ impact on the environment, among other things).
Consumers are looking out for these sustainable brands, because they’d rather spend their money with them than with someone who seems to care only for profit. It pays, then, to keep your finger on the pulse of consumers, and stock the brands they are talking about.
2. Use recycled, reusable and biodegradable packaging
Banning single-use plastic carrier bags in supermarkets the world over has been a step in the right direction towards cutting down on the consumption of plastic packing, which is widely recognized as a key environmental pollutant. But campaigners, and consumers, are urging retailers to do more. In a Nielsen Homescan survey, 88% of shoppers said they agreed that retailers should do more to reduce the amount of plastic packaging used in grocery products.
The UK’s largest supermarket retailer Tesco has pledged to remove one billion pieces of plastic from its products as it seeks to reduce its environmental impact and meet consumer demand for less waste. As part of this it will replace small plastic bags, commonly used to pack loose fruit, vegetables and bakery items, with paper ones. The goal is to also cut down on excessive packaging, such as secondary lids on products, plastic trays from ready meals and wrappers on clothing and greetings cards.
The world’s first plastic-free supermarket, Ekoplaza, opened in Amsterdam in 2018. All of the products sold in the store came with no plastic packaging. Since then, similar initiatives have popped up across the globe. With the boom of online shopping, zero-waste delivery services have started appearing. “Loop”, a service now available in several countries, offers grocery deliveries that come in durable, reusable packaging – no ice packs, reusable bags and boxes, and even stainless-steel reusable containers and glass bottles – which can then be returned for cleaning and refilling.
Progress is being made to develop alternatives to plastic packaging, too. Biodegradable packaging made from plant-based materials such as starch and cellulose, which breaks down in a manner that is kinder to the environment than plastic, is becoming more mainstream. For example, online luxury retailer Net-a-Porter removed all plastic packaging from subscriber copies of its magazine PORTER and replaced it with biodegradable sleeves.
Everyone, from big brands to small independents, is reassessing how they use packaging and where they can reduce their impact. It’s time, then, to explore how you can cut down on plastic in your own business and find more eco-friendly alternatives.
3. Revamp second hand
Coming with a long history and undeniable eco-friendly credentials, second hand is cool again. More consumers than ever are choosing to buy vintage and second-hand goods. A report by thredUP, the largest online thrift store, found that in the past three years, the overall market of used and re-sold products has grown 21 times faster than the retail apparel market.
Vintage and second-hand items are popular with consumers for two key reasons: they help reduce the environmental impact of their purchases – the fashion industry is the world’s second largest contributor to pollution – and they’re affordable, allowing people to get hold of goods they perhaps wouldn’t have been able to afford new.
For retailers, second hand is big business and in some cases, for instance luxury fashion, it opens up new opportunities to extend the hype for items and boost their value. Take the Supreme x Louis Vuitton Danube Satchel: it originally sold for US$2,410 when it launched in 2017. It is now selling on Vestiaire Collective for US$11,430.00, with a price increase of 374%. And the opportunities are not just in high fashion. The sneaker resale market, which is currently estimated to be worth US$2 billion, is projected to triple in size by 2025.
It makes sense, then, for retailers to take part in the pre-worn and used goods markets. Popular initiatives include buy-back schemes, where retailers accept returned items to be repaired, resold or recycled into new products, or partnerships with resale platforms.
4. Explore rental business models
Just like second-hand is experiencing a renaissance, so too are rental business models. The change has already transformed the music and entertainment industry – think how Spotify has supplanted compact-disc sales and downloads, and how Netflix has replaced video stores and boxsets – and it’s likely to affect more industries in the coming years.
In fashion, services like Rent the Runway, an online rental for clothes and accessories that includes luxury items, are meeting consumer hunger for newness without causing the same damage as fast fashion – prioritizing experiences over ownership, and making luxury more accessible to different kinds of consumers.
With more businesses venturing into the rental market, this is a consumption model that’s likely to grow and stick around for the future. US analyst McKinsey believes that established players will progressively regard alternative ownership as a force they need to embrace, or at least test, through new collaboration models with retailers or start-ups in the sector. This will require careful business-model considerations, and a clear choice between partnerships, in-house development, or mergers and acquisitions. Technology has a critical role to play too. So, when deciding what technology underpins your retail operation, particularly when it comes to your Point of Sale, it’s worth considering what tools and functionality you’ll need in the future, as modes of consumption continue to change.
5. Encourage and incentivize recycling
Linked closely to second hand and renting, a growing number of initiatives are allowing consumers to recycle their well-loved clothes when they’re ready to part with them – and be rewarded for it. H&M’s global Garment Collecting program has been running since 2013, helping to prevent customers’ unwanted clothes from going to landfill. When customers hand in a bag of old clothes, which can be from any brand and in any condition, they receive a £5/€5 voucher to use towards their next purchase of £25/€25 (or more) in store or online.
Similar initiatives include Scandinavian brand Ganni’s take back program, which allows customers to bring in all kinds of unwanted clothing and shoes from any brand, in whatever condition. Ganni will them sort them so they’re either reused, recycled or transformed into new fabrics. For every kilogram of clothes it receives, it will donate back to the I:CO circularity research project.
This trend is not just linked to fashion. IKEA Canada allows customers to bring back their used furniture and receive store credit. And UK department store John Lewis is accepting beauty packaging, which can be hard to recycle.
To make it even easier for consumers, some brands are even going as far as collecting the goods for recycling, rather than waiting for them to be dropped off in store. H&M ran a trial in New York offering Lyft rides to the store for shoppers planning to deliver used garments, while in the UK John Lewis plans to do a collection for larger items. According to Vogue Business, “at a time when brands are finding it increasingly expensive to attract and retain customers, take-back programs are a way to stand out.”
6. Redesign greener stores
LA-based fashion brand Reformation sells clothes that are both covetable and eco-conscious. If that weren’t enough, it’s also making an impact with its sustainable stores which are Green Business certified, meaning they implement strategies to save energy, improve water efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions. This involves incorporating materials like LED fixtures, rammed earth and recycled fabric insulation in its buildings, and offsetting its construction footprint and electricity usage.
This is not the only company going green. Fashion designer Stella McCartney’s flagship store in London embodies sustainability throughout – from its handmade, organic and sustainably sourced furnishings and biodegradable mannequins to the air conditioning system that cleans the air using nano-carbon technology. Ikea’s sustainable store in London Greenwich is built from a range of renewable materials. The roof is also covered with solar panels to power the store, and the building collects rainwater to halve its water consumption.
Store design is an area that will face increased scrutiny in the coming years. Indeed, global energy solutions provider Schneider Electric claims that retail buildings are the largest consumers of energy among non-residential buildings in Europe. By reducing their carbon footprint and emissions, retailers can lessen their impact on the planet and improve their brand image, while also saving significant costs.
7. Offer eco-friendly delivery options
Expedited shipping, promising one-day or even one-hour delivery, has fueled consumer demands and expectations for speed. While this is great news for consumers who want instant gratification, for the planet this can have devastating consequences.
Although it’s hard for retailers to step out of the quick delivery game, it’s possible to take steps in the right direction. Amazon, famous for its same-day Prime delivery, said it now moves most of its inventory without air transport and has pledged to make 50% of its deliveries “net zero carbon” – meaning they won’t create any harmful emissions – by 2030. The brand also plans to start using a fleet of electric vehicles.
Retailers can make smaller, but still meaningful, steps to decrease the environmental impact of deliveries. You could, for example, give your customers more choices, such as claiming extra loyalty points or a discount code if they’re willing to wait a few extra days for delivery. This would allow you to ship the item on an ecologically efficient route and schedule – and it would likely save you costs, too.
8. Set up a sustainability hackathon
If you are out of ideas, it may be worth turning to your customers to come up with the next best sustainability concept. Once reserved for coders and software engineers, hackathons are now being used more broadly to solve wider challenges in many industries, including retail.
Companies including Kering, LVMH and Burberry have all launched hackathons, calling on developers, students and experts to help solve supply chain management and overproduction among other sustainability issues, and awarding prizes to the teams that come up with the best ideas. These hackathons have yielded surprising results, including a project for zero-waste packaging for wine and spirits, a process that turns grape seed waste into a cosmetics ingredient, and a concept for the trench coat of the future, a garment that can be adapted and customized for different stages of a customer’s life.
With a growing number of consumers expressing interest in, and concern with sustainability, being green is not just an ethical choice for your retail brand – it is a smart business decision, too. If you need help figuring out how technology can help you in the path to sustainability, don’t hesitate to contact our experts.