Is high street sustainability an oxymoron?

Where does retail therapy sit on your top ten things to do? It’s fairly low on mine, going by the traditional definition:

 retail therapy: the practice of going shopping to make yourself feel happier.

Personally, I can think of plenty of other things to make me feel happier. But, being British, they usually depend on the weather: gardening, relaxing with family, enjoying a barbeque. If it’s raining, I might finally get round to making the conservatory hygge for winter.  

Hang on a minute! I hear you say. Half of those activities are linked to retail. Very true. Plants, food and household furnishings are my guilty pleasures and my spend on them could easily rival that of a fashion shopping spree.

Fashion’s negative footprint

However, I feel better about my purchases as I can easily make ethical choices when I go shopping at Ikea or Tesco. Whereas it’s much harder with fashion. And that isn’t just my view, Stella McCartney says so in a recent edie report


“Fashion is one of the most far-behind industries of a mass-scale that is responsible for a negative footprint. The minute you make something, you leave a footprint. But the fashion industry doesn’t talk about this. All of the other major industries in the world are having to look at themselves; having to question how they manufacture and what the responsibility of that is. Part of business is to change and the fashion industry has got more to do.”

 –          Stella McCartney, fashion designer

While I admire Stella enormously for her sustainability stance as well as her fabulous designs, her price tag is beyond me. Like most people, I have to make do with the high street.


High street sustainability?

But where do you find sustainability on the high street? Indeed, is high street sustainability an oxymoron?

Environmentally, the majority of retailers have reduced their waste and carbon footprint over the years. Cynics may say that’s got more to do with reducing overheads than eco-impacts, but I say that environmental ‘sustainability’ isn’t sustainable unless it’s economically and socially sustainable as well.

If a top made from recycled marine waste doesn’t look as good as its standard counterpart, it won’t sell, especially not with an expensive premium on top. However, the news that Primark is now retailing pyjamas made from sustainable cotton that look and cost the same as its regular PJs – just £6 – shows that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Retailers have to do the maths. As well as the cost of goods and running the store, they have to factor in rents and rates as well as staff wages for the longer opening hours consumers want. It’s a balancing act.


Global issue

The balancing act for responsible retailers goes way beyond the store. Beyond the British high street. It’s a whole business value chain issue. And a global issue with its own UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG).

SDG 12 – Responsible consumption and production – has targets ranging from sustainable use of natural resources to procurement, chemical management, waste in general and food waste specifically.

As a sustainability reporter, I like the UN’s target for more sustainability reporting. As a consumer, I can’t wait until 2030 for relevant information to help me follow a sustainable lifestyle in harmony with nature. I want it now!


Information and behaviour change

Responsible retailers know that consumer behaviour change is both a significant sustainability challenge and an opportunity.

Communicators know there’s a journey that retailers have to take people on to get them to act:          

  • KNOW:  awareness
  • THINK:  interest
  • FEEL:    emotion
  • DO:       action.

Where are you on that journey?

If you’ve read this far, I’ll take it that you’re interested in sustainability and responsible retail. So, why not join me at the Responsible Retail conference in London on 20 September.  It’s a great chance to get up close and personal with some the UK’s most responsible retailers and really engage in the sustainability debate.

See you there.

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