Over the past few years there has been a noticeable shift in consumer behaviour with people becoming more conscious about what they buy and how they shop.
One great example was the opening of Asda’s new ‘Sustainability Store’, which grabbed my attention – not least because of its location in a town bearing the proud name of Middleton.
I’ve not had a chance to visit it yet, but I’ve watched videos made by a number of eager shoppers and the response seems to be positive.
Refill stations and packaging-lite products are nothing particularly new, having been pioneered by smaller stores around the country for years. Likewise the idea of recycling hubs and pre-loved clothing.
The difference with the Asda offer is the bringing together of a wide selection of familiar brands in a retail space that is more recognisable to supermarket shoppers. That said, there are still concerns that the approach taken by some manufacturers continues to rely heavily on plastics.
In Middleton the mainstreaming of sustainability is being enabled by a major supermarket chain working with large-scale manufacturers, coupled with state-of-the-art marketing.
It’s great to see that kind of synergy, but it raises questions about just how green retailers can become and still turn a reasonable profit.
While it’s relatively easy to sell everyday consumable products in a more sustainable way, the same principles are more difficult to apply to other categories such as clothing, electronics and luxury goods.
The typical retail business model over the last century has driven the need to grow market share, which in turn expands the market itself. In many cases that relies on products that are inherently unsustainable to create repeat business.
For example, could Apple or Samsung survive without the planned obsolescence that produces new iterations of must-have gadgets or apps?
“While it’s relatively easy to sell everyday consumable products in a more sustainable way, the same principles are more difficult to apply to other categories such as clothing, electronics and luxury goods”
Even though there have been attempts to encourage reuse of tech products, this barely makes a dent in the mountain of electronics binned every year.
Some major clothing retailers such as H&M have tried to address this problem with collections based on the circular economy, but it’s limited.
Meanwhile, similar attempts by fast-fashion retailers like Primark seem to run contrary to a successful business model that has hitherto made a virtue of disposability.
Even the exponential growth of online has highlighted its own set of unintended environmental consequences with scandals surrounding the wasteful logistics of giants like Amazon.
For any economy to be truly circular we have to accept the principle of ‘one planet living’ and understand that we have to operate within the limitations of the Earth’s finite resources.
“For any economy to be truly circular we have to accept the principle of ‘one planet living’ and understand that we have to operate within the limitations of the Earth’s finite resources”
By the same token, unlimited growth and market expansion is intrinsically unsustainable. For retailers, that raises the sobering suggestion that environmentally conscious consumers may soon arrive at ‘peak stuff’. Indeed, it’s becoming clear in many high streets that we’ve already passed ‘peak retail’.
Given all the pressures on us at the moment, I know it’s hard not to yearn for the opportunity to get back to business as usual. But as we saw at COP26, that way leads to almost guaranteed disaster for future generations.
Much as I’m encouraged by the evolution of greener retail, I still don’t think we have a clear idea of what a fully sustainable retail future will look like or if that could even be achieved.
What is clear is that our industry must play a key part in tackling climate change. Even though there may be sustainability goals that some sectors will struggle to achieve, we all have a collective responsibility to move with purpose to overcome those obstacles where possible.
Every retailer will need to genuinely embrace green principles if they are going to survive in an economic environment that’s becoming every bit as turbulent and unpredictable as the one surrounding our planet.
Green & Black’s co-founder Jo Fairley explored this topic during Strategy Week as part of a wider discussion on putting ESG at the heart of your business. Watch on-demand now.
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