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The importance of being earnest

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So many retailers are jumping on the eco bandwagon that shoppers are becoming sceptical about the credibility of their promises. Katie Kilgallen says delivering on commitments will be crucial to keep them on side

Ethical clothing lines, Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, the “I’m not a plastic bag” designer carrier, Tesco’s 10-point plan – 2007 was the year when the UK high street turned green. But if the challenge of making a business more environmentally friendly wasn’t difficult enough, retailers now face another hurdle. A big problem with the copious column inches devoted to their eco efforts is that both consumers and the media are now beginning to feel distinctly greenwashed.

This leaves retailers in a predicament. They can’t be seen to be doing nothing, but their drives to be environmentally friendly are often met with scepticism. So how can businesses successfully differentiate themselves when everyone is trying to communicate a similar message?

James Edsberg, director of retail consultancy Lighthouse, believes the sector faces big questions over green credibility. “Retailers came to us and asked: ‘Are we going to end up tripping over our green promises; can you help us?’,” he says. Research Edsberg subsequently commissioned found that almost half of consumers distrusted retailers’ claims. The crescendo of green PR last year was, he adds, “quite frankly absurd, almost a farce at one point”. Green frenzy must be replaced by “clear thinking and sustainable strategies”, he says.

Firstly, ensuring the business takes a visible lead on green issues and, to a certain extent, puts its neck on the line can add credibility to a retailer’s campaign. One need look no further than M&S for evidence of this. Sir Stuart Rose openly stated he was committed to making the business more environmentally friendly.

This kind of approach is essential, says Chris Arnold, creative partner at ethical marketing agency Feel. “You need to have real people saying it. It needs to come from the top of the company and publicly – that makes it 10 times more believable,” he explains.

Such strong direction also concentrates efforts and ensures goals are met. DSGi corporate responsibility manager Clare Brine says: “Being brave and taking a leadership position encourages behaviour change.”

The way in which corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns are communicated is critical if consumers are to be convinced of their credibility. One way that retailers can help prove their best intentions to shoppers is to focus on one particular area where their business can have a significant impact. Rather than try to do everything, they should concentrate on what they do best. Brine says DSGi has taken a “design to disposal” look at the whole lifecycle of the electricals it sells – from energy-efficient design to recycling and disposal of its products.

Edsberg believes that brands take one of two strategies when communicating CSR strategy at present. One is the approach favoured by Tesco – “delegation”, as he describes it – whereby shoppers are given information on labels and left to decide which products to buy. The other tactic – the “trust us” approach – he says, is more typical of M&S, whereby the retailer asks customers to trust it to conduct business based on certain principles.

Alliance Boots group head of corporate social responsibility Richard Ellis recognises the shrewdness of M&S’s Plan A campaign. “It’s saying: ‘If you come and buy from us, we’ve done all the work for you.’ They are being very clever,” he says. Whereas, he continues, the advertising of some other retailers merely says: “Look at us, aren’t we green?”

However, Tesco community and government director David North says its customers need it to not only provide information, but also take control of the situation. “In devising our strategy, we were very careful to talk to customers, who said: ‘We want to play a part, but we need your help’,” he explains.

Whether retailers choose to shoulder more of the responsibility themselves or place buying decisions in consumers’ hands, the extent of information they provide customers with is critical. Too much can confuse and too little means they run the risk of appearing to be doing nothing. Brine believes shoppers are confused. “What consumers want is to make things easy,” she says. She adds that, since the introduction of A to G labels on white goods to indicate their energy efficiency, sales of A-rated appliances – the most efficient – have risen considerably.

Above all, retailers must honour commitments. Failure to do that could have a catastrophic impact on the brand. North says: “If you make a promise, it’s important to deliver on it. Customers can tell the difference between gimmicks and long-term commitments.”

Likewise, Edsberg warns: “Retailers will be held to account by the media, NGOs and pressure groups.” Greenpeace keeps a record of retailers that have made green promises.

Being accused of hypocrisy is another danger. Rightly or wrongly, in the eyes of the consumer, a lot of retailers’ promises can be perceived as little more than something for them to shout about. A shopper who reads about a retailer pledging to reduce carrier bag usage and then sees a chain of lorries queuing around the back of one of their stores when they visit it may well feel unconvinced about the retailer’s true intentions.

And the modern-day obsession with blogging and social networking, which paves the way for brand terrorism, doesn’t help either. Arnold says a£5 million ad campaign could be brought down in one fell swoop by one negative blog entry. “You have to tread carefully with your claims. People believe people they don’t know over brands they do. It’s very easy to be exposed – the media picks it up,” he says.

Fundamentally, a retailer’s green credentials must be viewed as an extension of the brand. As Brine says: “Customers trust the likes of Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Waitrose. If they trust your brand, generally they will trust what you say in this area.”

TNS Worldpanel UK director Edward Garner agrees that brand heritage plays a big part. “On local produce, Waitrose comes top. It summarises what Waitrose is about – it’s the family silver as far as it is concerned,” he says. “Asda fares worse. You can’t be top of the list on price and ethics.” Arnold adds: “The Co-op often comes top because people know it is a mutual [organisation] and has roots in farming, whereas people view Tesco’s aim as simply to make more money.”

Scepticism among consumers can also arise from what is often perceived as competitive greenness, which leads shoppers to question retailers’ motives and commitment. Brine admits that in a competitive market “there is always going to be a battle of who can say it first”. But she adds that the public probably isn’t aware of instances when retailers work together on green initiatives. One example, she says, is DSGi’s present discussions with Ikea about potential collaboration on a supply chain initiative. Perhaps visibly working together could be the way to win consumers over.

Last year was viewed by many as a turning point. Everyone was finally convinced that responsible retailing is not just a fad, it’s a fundamental trend. Edsberg says: “We work with private equity companies and they are now asking: ‘What are retailers saying on green issues, ethical sourcing and so on?’ That’s not a question they would have asked 18 months ago.”

Many businesses have now developed comprehensive CSR strategies and are working hard to deliver them. But their energy may be wasted unless they think extremely carefully about how they communicate their messages to their customers. If 2007 was the year the promises were made, 2008 is the year they will have to be seen to deliver.

Green in fashion?

A survey carried out by TNS Worldpanel Fashion last year found that 45 per cent of consumers were sceptical about ethical practices within this sector. For whatever reason, the small ethical clothing ranges that are appearing on increasing numbers of rails in fashion stores are not convincing the shoppers.

Furthermore, retailers are in danger of being seen to offer a token range, without looking at the bigger picture and implementing the same ethical standards across all of their merchandise. TNS Worldpanel Fashion client manager Elaine Giles says: “The impression is they are doing it just because everyone else is doing it and it’s not core to their principles.”

And, while many clothing retailers have gone down the route of offering organic lines, this is low down the list of criteria for shoppers. Just 15 per cent quizzed by TNS said it was “very important”, compared with 70 per cent citing the need to tackle sweatshops and child labour.

Nearly two thirds of respondents said ethical issues were important. And that proportion is likely to increase.

Consumer opinion of green retailers

* Almost half of consumers questioned said they do not trust what retailers tell them about the environmental impact of the goods they sell

* 78 per cent said they wanted retailers to provide them with all the relevant information so they can decide what to buy for themselves

* 77 per cent said it wasn't realistic to expect retailers to change all their operations and products immediately

* 57 per cent said they found labelling confusing when trying to make a green choice.

Source: Lighthouse Global, December 2007

Trends for 2008

“Green is getting old – the word of 2008 will be moral,” forecasts Chris Arnold, creative partner at ethical marketing agency Feel.

Boosted by the TV campaign by celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, animal testing and animal abuse are likely to come to the fore and be big priorities this year.

It also looks likely that the drive to get back to basics with more local produce and talking to customers will continue.

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