Working together for a better retailing climate

Changes to the sustainability landscape are gathering pace. This change will intensify in the coming decades as we face a changing climate and ever greater demands for finite resources. So what does the future hold for those in retail sustainability?

Working together for a better retailing climate

As edie’s retail sector summary report discovered, the focus for retailers’ initiatives has moved decisively beyond operational issues to the production and consumption of products and broader and more international social and environmental issues within their supply chains.

Ten years ago, a sustainability professional within the retail industry might have dealt mainly with operational issues like reducing operational carbon emissions and diverting waste from landfill. Today, retail sustainability professionals work across issues as diverse as biodiversity, modern slavery, sustainable sourcing, the circular economy, diet and nutrition, and community investment.

Sector summary: The state of sustainability in retail

The transformation in the ways in which we shop and exchange information has brought into sharp focus the expectation that retailers will act responsibly and communicate in a transparent way with their customers. Recent years have seen business sustainability placed increasingly under a microscope as investors have begun to prioritise it, with politicians also placing higher expectations on corporate governance and reporting.

What makes retail so different from other industries? Retailers are generally working with a wide range of products, sourced from all over the world. They are a hub into which many other industries feed in and have direct relationships with the those in the supply chain and customers too. It’s a reputation-driven and highly visible industry, which tends to be a particular focus for leading campaign groups and the media, as a way of also reaching the retailers’ supply chain and customers.

The past couple of years have proved pivotal for discussions on sustainability and environmental issues, with the unprecedented COP21 climate change agreement in Paris and the promotion of science-based targets for carbon reduction; the announcement of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the UN, the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package, and the UK’s Modern Slavery Act. 

Collaborative approach

These developments are giving retailers the confidence and certainty to continue innovating and leading the way in sustainability while consistently meeting the evolving demands of their customers. In particular, the SDGs provide a globally agreed framework to address sustainability issues.

Partnerships, coalitions and collaboration are key to current and future progress on global challenges like climate change. As the scope of retail sustainability professionals has broadened, there is a real recognition that a multi-stakeholder approach is needed to address those issues that companies cannot address on their own. In the global market, UK retailers may be relatively small. Yet they more than likely have some of the most demanding consumers of anywhere in the world so they need to build scale with like-minded partners.

Scale is also needed at a national level. Whilst all retailers will have initiatives aimed at reducing food waste or carbon in their own chains, the media, government and consumers tend to rightly view progress through the prism of an industry in its entirety. Failure to achieve consistent progress means the whole sector is tarnished and faces additional challenges responsible companies may feel are unnecessary.

The BRC is working with members to incorporate the SDGs into its ‘A Better Retailing Climate’ initiative, which highlights the progress and ambition of UK retail in acting in a sustainable and responsible manner.

The key question with which retail sustainability professionals are grappling with is: ‘would your business be fit for purpose in 2030/2050 if it was run as it is today?’ In many cases, the answer to this question will be a resounding ‘no’. Professionals are required not just to recognise relevant issues but also to make the case within their businesses to invest in and develop solutions and to take a long-term view. Sustainability teams need to focus on engagement and behaviour change throughout their organisations to embed long-term solutions into everyday procurement and operational practices.

Trust is vital for the retail industry and sustainability professionals are there to develop and demonstrate a responsible business and engender that trust. The industry exemplifies the fast-paced rate of change in the world of sustainability. With the reach, impact, expectation and expertise that run throughout the industry, the industry as a whole looks set to carry the expectations and pioneer the approaches, collaboration, people and solutions of the future.

Alice Ellison, environment policy adviser, BRC

Peter Andrews, sustainability policy adviser, BRC

edie sector summary report: The state of sustainability in retail

This blog firsat appeared within edie’s latest sector summary report, which outlined the key drivers, challenges and opportunities facing sustainability professionals in Britain’s retail industry. 

The 17-page report, produced with support from the BRC, provides readers with an end-to-end overview of the state of sustainability in retail.

Download the report for free here.


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