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GUEST COMMENT Retailers are raising the bar with sustainability efforts, but is it enough?

Sunrise on a more sustainable world thanks to some retailers

Sustainability is an important issue for all retailers and many are making great strides in minimising waste, reducing the use of plastic and improving their packaging to make it more environmentally friendly. Whilst these are the issues most commonly broadcast, retailers can’t forget other key areas such as preventing over-stocking, the use of organic and sustainable cotton in fashion retail, reducing carbon footprint and the use of hazardous chemicals and introducing reuse/recycle schemes to combat the cycle of fast fashion.

The retailers that take these issues seriously will reap the rewards, not just for the impact on the environment which must remain the primary goal, but also to their reputation and their ability to attract customers. In fact, research shows that shoppers would actually be prepared to pay an average of 8.5% more for more environmentally-friendly products. This has seen a huge shift in the last few years, with two-thirds of consumers declaring they care more about the environmental impact of the goods they buy today, compared to five years ago. There should be nothing holding retailers back from making these fundamental changes to their operations.

Some retailers have already set the bar high with the changes they’ve made and the impacts they have been able to demonstrate. Helen Willmott, Product Manager – Compliance, EMEA, Adjuno, describes which retailers are getting ahead and what the industry needs to do to achieve the true meaning of sustainability.

Sustainability success

The current statistics shared across the media are shocking; for example, textile production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. It is clear to see why changes need to be made.

Grocery retailers are currently making good progress, with Iceland just one brand that has removed 2,000 tonnes of plastic out of the 13,000 tonnes used in its packaging annually as part of its five-year technical plan. In tandem, Tesco is aiming to remove not just plastic but all non-recyclable and hard-to-recycle materials from its packaging; by the end of this year, Tesco will have eliminated the hardest to recycle materials from its own-brand products, resulting in removing over 4,000 tonnes of materials from 8,000 lines. In high-end grocery, Waitrose has declared its trial of a packaging-free store, which will only sell refillable items, and is also exploring plastic alternatives for packaging, such as using the tomato vines that are stripped off the plants for its tomato punnets.

In the packaging world, Amazon has led the way since 2008 with its Frustration-Free Packaging programme, which now includes 750,000 products that are packaged using 100% recyclable materials. Online fashion brand ASOS has followed suit, declaring its packaging to be as environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible, with thinner mailing packs in a wider range of sizes that ensure the packaging fits better, creating less waste and carbon emissions. Some smaller retailers are giving the giants strong competition, with fast-fashion retailer Pink Boutique using mailing bags from sugarcane since last year. 

Statistics from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee show that as a result of fast fashion, the UK buys more clothes than any other country in Europe and throws away over a million tonnes of clothes, with £140m worth going to landfill, every year. This prompted fast-fashion retailers Zara and H&M to start recycling clothing, with Zara pledging to only sell sustainable clothes by 2025 and H&M making its Garment Collecting programme more widely known, which has been available in stores since 2013. Furthermore, Marks and Spencer has a target that 50 key raw materials, which makes up 80% of their raw materials, will be sustainably sourced by 2025, and Primark has a long-term aim to use 100% sustainable cotton in all its product categories.

Retailers are clearly making steps in the right direction, but are they doing enough? What more can retailers and businesses in all sectors, and of all sizes, do to ensure their programmes are having a greater impact on the wider sustainability agenda?

Prevent over-stocking 

The Burberry scandal in 2018, in which the upmarket fashion label declared it destroyed unsold clothes, accessories and perfume to protect its brand, totalling more than £90m in five years, was a big catalyst for retailers to make some changes. This is where technology can come into play to provide a global view of inventory, enabling retailers to better visualise what stock they have, where they need more or where they may have over-stocked. Additionally, analytics can be used to manage the supply chain to ensure retailers aren’t left with excess stock that has to go to landfill.

Create a sustainability culture 

Research shows that 70% of fashion and retail bosses believe a more sustainable approach is either “mission-critical” or a key objective for their companies. However, becoming a sustainable business with sustainable practices and operations doesn’t happen overnight. It requires buy-in, investment and the right culture to make the initiatives a success. Targets need to be set and each department needs to understand what is expected of them in order to make a positive impact.

However, retailers need to think beyond their own organisation and collaborate with the rest of the industry in order to drive and contribute towards real change. In fact, three-quarters of fashion and retail bosses believe more sustainability regulations are needed in their industries. The same research shows that while almost all of the surveyed companies said they have a strategy and policies in place, three-quarters think a real step change will only be achieved with greater regulation.

It is by working together that retailers can also raise greater awareness of the progress that is happening across the industry. This awareness will also create a notable shift in consumer attitudes, which is much needed; with fast fashion in particular, retailers and consumers must work together to move away from the ‘buy it, wear it, photograph it, throw it away’ culture that has been created through the quick turnaround of new styles and the rise of social media. 

It is time for bigger retailers to learn from the adaptability of smaller retailers, and smaller retailers to learn from the big dreams and high targets of big retailers. It is only when an industry consensus is reached that real change can be delivered and true sustainability practices can be delivered.

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