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GUEST COMMENT Dreaming of a green Christmas: can retail be sustainable during peak?

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Historically, the holiday season has been synonymous with excess – from mountains of wrapping paper and packaging to leftovers and unwanted gifts. But sustainability is now top of mind for many consumers, as shown by NielsenIQ’s 2022 study that found that nearly two-thirds (61%) of UK shoppers expect retailers to follow eco-friendly practices.

Emily McGill, sustainability expert at ReBound

Emily McGill, sustainability expert at ReBound, asks as this demand grows – how can retailers and brands adapt and meet their sustainability goals, while ensuring that good quality customer experience is still prioritised during the peak holiday rush?

What do customers want?
As ever, retailers are trying to be led by what their customers want and expect. To delve into the current consumer sentiment, ReBound released a survey recently that found that more than three quarters of people intend to switch to more environmentally friendly retailers. Clearly, sustainability is no longer optional in retail.

More broadly, consumers are looking for brands that align with their moral and ethical values, giving companies a clear incentive to do better. For example, the survey found that an overwhelming majority of people would donate unwanted clothes to charity via retailer-led postal services, while nearly 75% would pay extra for their returns to be processed sustainably. 

In order to meet this increasing consumer demand for sustainability, many retailers are going to have to rethink their operations. This could include collaborations with ethical, eco-friendly producers to increase sustainable sourcing, making products from recycled materials and reducing packaging. To complement these efforts, engaging in charitable partnerships can facilitate the recycling or donation of any excess materials – take the Salvation Army’s Take Back scheme, for example, which has partners including Cotton Traders and John Lewis.

Avoiding wastage
The holiday season’s festive consumerism brings with it a sharp increase in waste. Christmas jumpers and other seasonal items get bought, only to be quickly returned or discarded. According to the GWP group, the UK typically produces and discards 30% more waste throughout the festive season compared to the rest of the year. And on average, UK households throw away three-and-a-half extra bags of holiday packaging.

Fixing this problem doesn’t fall entirely to retailers. But, with appropriate preparation, retailers and brands can limit the amount of waste that could potentially end up in landfill. Efficient recycling programs, repurposing leftover material and partnering with charities can ensure that products find new homes instead of being tossed. 

Retailers can also prevent unnecessary waste by improving inventory planning and management. It may be a less glamorous side of fashion and retail, but careful forecasting and leveraging predictive analytics can help avoid overstocking upfront and keep waste to a minimum.

Smart returns
In addition to waste, the holiday season often brings a surge of returns, as customers exchange unwanted gifts or items of clothing that don’t fit. For retailers, managing this high volume of returns can cause hefty logistical and financial challenges, not to mention the environmental headache and additional emissions from the repeated shipping.

Retailers can curb these challenges through ‘smart returns’ processes, which help brands optimise their reverse logistics and minimise emissions. Smart returns involve embedding data at every touchpoint, helping brands to identify bottlenecks and empower informed decision-making. The result is a more resilient and adaptive process that saves the retailer time and money, and enhances the customer experience by ensuring prompt and reliable service. 

Other key innovations, like cross-channel coordination, where bricks-and-mortar and ecommerce shipping are combined, can also reduce unnecessary shipping by optimising routing. Advanced omnichannel management strategies minimise costs and environmental impact while providing data back to retailers to help manage higher volumes of returns during and after sales spikes. 

An eco-friendly Christmas for retailers
Despite the festive period being the busiest time of year for retailers, sustainability is no longer a fringe concern, but a necessity. As brands look for eco-friendly solutions, they should complement their customer-facing initiatives, such as sustainable partnerships, charity drives and new packaging materials, with improvements at the back-end.

Consumers are looking for proof of sustainability beyond marketing campaigns, so real-world, data-driven innovations can give retailers a competitive edge. Efficient recycling systems, refined inventory management, and a smart returns process will all reduce excess waste and carbon emissions, while failure to adapt will mean retailers risk falling behind competitors and customer expectations. More than ever, the holiday season is the time for brands to prove sustainable success is possible, even at peak demand.

Emily McGill, sustainability expert at ReBound

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