Retailers will need to focus on sustainability to survive - Dale Crombie

Dale Crombie is a Solicitor with Anderson StrathernDale Crombie is a Solicitor with Anderson Strathern
Dale Crombie is a Solicitor with Anderson Strathern
The retail sector has battled with seismic change in recent times. The internet led to new sales channels, globalisation opened up new markets, Brexit happened – and then Covid shook the industry to the core.

As the public increasingly demands more accountability on green issues, the next challenge for retailers is to move sustainability rapidly up their agendas. As Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever recently stressed: “Any company that wants to stay relevant in the future should think about sustainable behaviour” – and I completely agree.

Just look at the huge shift in messaging over the past five years. In 2016, very few retailers had publicly committed to lowering their carbon footprint. By 2021, 65 global retail brands had made that pledge, and established realistic targets based on scientific research. These included Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Co-op and Marks & Spencer, who released a joint statement announcing their plans to halve the environmental impact of their food operations by 2030.

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Given the food industry is responsible for almost 60 per cent of the global damage to biodiversity and more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, this was a weighty statement of intent. But it’s not just the food industry that needs to step up. Every year in the UK alone, some £140m worth of clothing and 22 million pieces of furniture are sent to landfill.

Most major retailers will employ a combination of tactics to meet those all-important environmental impact targets. Many are combating landfill through recycling or repair initiatives. Schuh, for example, gives customers £5 to spend for every pair of old shoes they donate in-store, with 98 per cent of donations sold to developing countries.

A retailer’s sustainability credentials are no longer measured only in terms of the raw materials from which they make their products. Everything from the packaging used for online orders, the carbon impact of the ‘final mile’ of delivery, through to the fabric of the company’s buildings and the energy these consume, all come into play.

This has been demonstrated by the backlash against Marks & Spencer’s plans to demolish and rebuild its flagship Oxford Street premises. Crowdfunder campaigns, petitions and outrage in the media have been driven by concern over the environmental impact of a huge new-build store.

Retailers’ sustainability goals mean they’re now accountable for their supply chain’s carbon footprint too. They can no longer afford to be associated with companies that don’t align with their environmental goals. Before making a claim regarding the green credentials of their supply chain, retailers need to really do their homework – which can be time- and cost-intensive. But with covert investigations into major brands often resulting in accusations of ‘greenwashing’, with the potential serious reputational damage that entails, the investment is worth it.

Another way for retailers to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability is to help their customers lower their own carbon footprint. With 88 per cent of consumers claiming they’d welcome this type of support, moves like this will gain favour for a brand.

One thing is certain – sustainability in all its forms is not a passing trend, but a necessary part of how retailers run their day-to-day operations if they want to survive. Consumers are making it clear that green issues influence how they spend their disposable income. At the same time, shareholders and investors are also pressuring retailers to adopt sustainable strategies, so it is no wonder that the shrewd ones are ensuring they have the same focus.

Dale Crombie is a Solicitor with Anderson Strathern

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