The Covid pandemic may finally be starting to cool down, but attention this week has shifted to another crisis that’s threatening to boil over – climate change.

Image 4_ ‘Today (Monday 17th August) Selfridges unveils Project Earth, its transformational sustainability initiative with five-year commitments to change the way we shop and how it does business.’

To judge by the mood music around the latest IPCC report – “code red for humanity”, according to the boss of the United Nations – there is no time to waste in addressing the looming catastrophe.

After the tribulations of the past 18 months, it’s tempting simply to shut your ears to whatever the latest dire news might be and focus on what can be controlled – the detail of retail.

But, as with coronavirus, the reality of climate change will ultimately collide head-on with business as usual. Retailers must act now, to whatever extent that they can – it fundamentally needs action by governments, of course – rather than hang around.

Otherwise, whether it’s even greater disruption of global supply chains or constrained regulation, the fallout is likely to be bad for retailers and their customers.

In the end, from a retail perspective, it is the customer who matters. The indications are that consumers are changing – they’re worried about climate change, and they want and expect retailers to make the right decisions on their behalf.

The indications are that consumers are changing – they’re worried about climate change, and they want and expect retailers to make the right decisions on their behalf

And some of the people who young shoppers in particular may be influenced by – such as climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg – have retail in their sights. In the same week the IPCC report was published, Thunberg took aim at fashion retailers in an interview with Vogue Scandinavia.

She accused fashion retailers of making a “huge” contribution to climate change, argued that some are guilty of “greenwash” and pushed for “system change”.

While she may not speak for all, Thunberg is listened to by many. The changing habits of some younger shoppers, such as the vogue for second-hand – epitomised by Depop, recently bought by Etsy for $1.6bn (£1.2bn) – are already making an impact on traditional retail. 

Harvey Nichols, for instance, has just launched a resale service to “offer customers a circular model of consumption”.

Luxury peers Harrods and Selfridges offer similar services, including rental, while retailers like Asda and Decathlon at the opposite end of the price spectrum are also dipping their toes into resale. 

Who would have seen that coming 18 months or so ago? At the most fundamental level – the shopfloor – climate change disruption is already happening and customer behaviour is driving the shift.

Serving the customer better

Successful retail has thrived by responding to and anticipating consumer needs and desires, and there must be opportunities to serve the customer better by minimising climate impact. 

That point was made crystal clear by Kingfisher chief executive Thierry Garnier in an interview with Retail Week. He sees demand for sustainable products and services as one of the opportunities for the DIY giant, which decades ago was one of the earliest retail converts to the sustainability cause. 

It is in fact at the end of the retail supply chain – when food is put on the table, smartphones are charged or the fridge is turned on – that the industry’s greatest contribution to climate change is strongly felt. 

The BRC’s Climate Action Roadmap, published earlier this year, found that 75% of the retail industry’s emissions “come from the production and use of retail products”

The BRC’s Climate Action Roadmap, published earlier this year, found that 75% of the retail industry’s emissions “come from the production and use of retail products”.

Retailers can make some of the biggest differences by helping their customers to live better and reduce their environmental impact by seeking solutions to those two critical points. 

Tackling climate change is horribly complex. Reading the IPCC report, or indeed retailers’ own releases documenting their sustainability progress, can be like sitting an exam – trying to get your head around factors such as ‘market-based method emissions per 1,000 sq ft of salesfloor’, or what counts as Scope 1, 2 or 3, is hardly straightforward.

However, such detail is testament to the seriousness with which retailers are approaching climate change and their determination to provide measurable data on the efficacy of actions they are taking.

Taking action

Many have not needed the IPCC report to galvanise them into action. 

Tesco, for instance, achieved a cut in absolute carbon emissions of 50% last year, beating its ‘science-based’ target of 35%.

In fashion, Thunberg’s bugbear at the moment, Marks & Spencer – which has put sustainability among its priorities since Stuart Rose’s time in charge – uses 100% sustainably sourced cotton in its own-brand clothing. Both are working with suppliers to help them minimise their environmental impact. 

Asos works with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to combat clothing waste and – along with other retailers from Aldi to AO, Next to Notonthehighstreet – is backing the BRC’s roadmap ambition of reaching net zero by 2040, a decade ahead of the official target date for the UK as a whole.

From a retail business perspective, making sustainability simple for the shopper is a strategy that reinforces the industry’s status as a consumer champion, by being a champion of the planet.

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