The seven buzzwords in responsible retail

“We need a common language” was one of Dr Mark Sumner’s conclusions at end of the edie Responsible Retail conference in London (Sept 20).  

To start things off, here’s a round-up of some of the most frequently uttered words from the line-up of responsible retailers. Plus a sustainability wordsmith’s musings on them.

1. King

The consumer is king and still rules. Retailers are the king (and queen’s) subjects. Those who serve them best will continue to flourish, those who don’t meet their needs won’t. Even when it to comes to sustainability. Especially when it comes to sustainability – apparently it’s now part of the criteria for House of Fraser’s royal warrant.

In the same way that it’s not the done thing to lecture royalty, retailers would be ill-advised to rant at consumers over irresponsible consumption or disposal. Customers hate being told what to do.

The key, according to IKEA, is to create a space where consumers can talk and learn about sustainable living from each other. The retailer’s role is to listen actively and respond appropriately. 

2. Expectation

Consumers expect business to take the lead on sustainability. They expect things to happen even if they don’t play their part eg recycling plastic bottles.  

All businesses are expected to source goods responsibly; minimise environmental impacts and uphold human rights as well as consumer rights. Right along the value chain. Consumers expect it. Government expects it. NGOs expect it. Employees now expect it.

For listed companies, like Debenhams, investors increasingly expect it to deliver on environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters alongside financial profit.

The best way to view these expectations is the Clark’s way: as an opportunity. Why? Because doing the groundwork to meet these expectations gives you an opportunity to engage with different stakeholders and create a positive story to tell, which will help you sell.  

3. Reputation

Reputation is a big driver of corporate responsibility in retail, because loss of reputation equals a loss of trust and consumer sales. The risk of brand damage is too great to ignore the issues outside a retailer’s direct control.

It’s no longer good enough to say you didn’t know what was a supplier was doing in their remote factory. If any of your suppliers are harming people or planet, their behaviour is your problem. Because campaigners will make it your problem by exposing your links to those suppliers via the media.

 4. Incentives

Avoiding negative press and NGO campaigns is a big stick incentive. So too is legislation. While we heard from CAF about the success of the plastic carrier bag levy, most people in the room didn’t want levies to become the government’s blunt instrument of choice. It all depends on the product.

The BRC reminded us how retailers voluntarily act before legislation eg banning plastic microbeads. But I was pleasantly surprised to hear so many speakers hailing the Modern Slavery Act as a positive game changer that has transformed conversations.

Like retailers, customers prefer carrots to sticks. But what’s the best way to incentivise behaviour change among consumers? Well, it depends. Vouchers work for H&M customers who bring back clothes for recycling, but one size doesn’t fit all – literally.

5. Empowerment

For Surfdome, empowering customers to take action on issues they are passionate about is more important than giving them money off. Plastic is their biggie – from packaging to disposal to marine conservation, it unites the retailer with their consumer and commercial customers. Having taken a clear stance on packaging, brands have had to change their ways if they want to be stocked. Empowered by Surfdome’s call to action, its consumers undertake a 2-minute beach clean every time they head down to the water.

For Primark, it’s about empowering women in India who supply sustainable cotton for the high streets of Europe. They could easily have chosen suppliers under an existing fair trade label, but they wanted to do something from the ground up. It was truly inspiring to see the difference that ‘mom’s training’ has had on the way they farm, do business and invest the profits in their families and communities. A genuine human-interest story, which certainly makes you think differently about the value brand.

6. Collaboration

A recurring word was ‘collaboration’ and its sibling ‘partnership’. Retailers are doing stacks of good work behind the scenes with organisations like BRC and a plethora of ethical trade associations.

Corporate charitable partnerships are also important. A campaigning NGO may highlight an issue and get a reaction, but the charities that enter into partnerships with retailers are the ones that drive long-term, sustainable change, both within the business and for their charitable cause.

The problem with collaboration is that it can be laboriously slow, which is counter to the FMCG world in which retailers are trying to do good business. Competition also spurs sustainable innovation – we learned that the success of Veggie Pret has shaken up a sector that thought mainstream consumers wouldn’t buy it. Assumptions easily lead us up the wrong aisle.

7. Context

The important thing to remember is that everything depends on context. What works in India is remarkable, but what works in Sweden doesn’t automatically translate to UK consumer behaviour. What appears to be irresponsibly cheap clothing in Oxford Street is actually all that consumers trying to make ends meet elsewhere can afford. Should a clothes recycling scheme be a priority for John Lewis or is it better to concentrate on recycling white goods, which have more impact by weight?

And coming back to where we started, with a call for a common language. As a writer, I’m not convinced. It depends on who your audience is and what you want them to think, feel and do. You have to adapt your language according to your context. So, if you’re talking to sustainability peers, it’s fine to talk about the sustainable development goals (SDGs), but for heaven’s sake don’t say it to consumers! Even the UN has the alternative Global Goals moniker for that audience. Better still, just tell the stories about education and water conservation – consumers don’t need to know what SDG number it belongs to.

As fashion retailers, you can talk about Higg Index when you sit together, but it means nothing to me, outside your industry. As a consumer, I just want clear, simple, honest information about my clothes. Nothing too brief, nothing too detailed – just enough. And if you’re not sure what’s right, just ask your customers. Listen. And act.

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