UK retail giants sign up to collaborative SDG commitment

A group of major retailers, including Ikea, Debenhams and Sainsbury's, have signed up to a series of commitments to collaboratively tackle pressing societal issues by using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework.

More than 25 UK retailers have committed to the Better Retail Better World pledge, which aims to boost corporate alignment to SDGs covering decent work and economic growth, reduced inequalities, sustainable communities, responsible consumption and production and climate action.

As part of the collaborative group, retails such as Boots, John Lewis, Kingfisher and Marks & Spencer have all agreed to share knowledge and best practice in addressing the goals. Launched by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the initiative will provide public updates on corporate progress against the SDGs.

Speaking at the launch of the initiative in Westminster this morning, BRC’s chairman Richard Pennycook said: “The penny has dropped, we realise we can do much more collectively than we can by competing on this particular ground…we’re launching something where the sector has held hands and said, ‘we can do this better together’.

“This is part of a growing movement for change. It is time for the retail industry to show what it can do for the common good. We are taking collective action to build a better, more prosperous and sustainable world, and demonstrating how we are making a positive contribution to society, in terms of the supply chain, food packaging, and waste.”

Race to restore

The UK retail sector employs around 3.2 million people and the BRC will work with retailers to address human rights issues, with tangible progress to be demonstrated by 2022. Signatories have pledged to reduce waste sent to landfill, measure all operational water use and progress responsible sourcing practices. Companies will also collaborate to eliminate links to deforestation by 2030 and reduce emissions and increase uptake of renewable energy.

Other retailers signing up to the Better Retail Better World pledge include Aldi, Baukjen Group, C&J Clarks, The Co-op, DFS, Dixons Carphone, Fenwicks, Greggs, The House of Bruar, House of Fraser, Lidl, Morrisons, Musgrave Group, Next, Ocado, Signet (Ernest Jones, H. Samuel), WHSmith and Wilko.

Commenting on the launch, WWF’s chief executive Tanya Steele said: “We are delighted to support the Better Retail Better World industry goals which provide BRC members with some of the best information and guidance to engage with the Sustainable Development Goals.

“The goals are what the SDGs are all about: bringing business, civil society and government together to bring about change in the world. Retail businesses working with consumers are key to the success of the SDGs and key in the race to restore nature.”

A collaborative commitment to the SDGs is welcome. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)’s Reporting Matters initiative notes that 79% of Council members currently mention the SDGs in reports, but only 6% have highlighted tangible action against a target. Mentioning the SDGs is itself at danger of becoming a new tick-box activity, according to the WBCSD.

Speaking exclusively to edie, the BRC’s head of environment and project lead, Alice Ellison, explained that the members would focus on five goals where retailers could make the most impact, by shaping new commitments around the targets listed under relevant goals.

“We’ve used the SDGs as a framework to shape what retail should be doing rather than using the SDGs to highlight what we’ve been doing,” Ellison said. “We’re at the beginning of the journey and we want as many retailers on board, so we might stick with the same targets, or they might evolve over time.

“Our members have signed a commitment and although businesses will do their own thing on the SDGs, we realise that a collaborative approach is where you can make a real difference. There’s still a lack of government direction, and because there are so many targets in the goals, it can be difficult to focus. Most of the members have already mapped their actions.”

The state of retail

Britain’s retail sector is in a state of tremendous change. The perfect storm of cost pressures, rising inflation and slowing wage growth has led to fluctuations in consumer confidence, while a series of unexpected political events – topped by Brexit – has instilled a feeling of uncertainty across the high street.

edie’s 17-page sector summary report, produced with input from the BRC, seeks to answer this key question by building on the key findings from our own industry survey to outline five drivers, challenges and opportunities facing sustainability professionals across the retail sector.

Matt Mace

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