The Sustainability Revolution Hits Retail

Retailers have realised that sustainability sells

According to Water – Use It Wisely, a single pair of jeans can use 1,000 gallons of water throughout its product lifecycle. For most people, washing clothes is a necessary and socially advisable task. The denim bosses at Levi’s, however, beg to differ. The company’s recent ‘don’t wash your jeans’ campaign signifies an awareness that the retail industry – particularly fast fashion – can be incredibly bad for the environment. This, in turn, has a negative impact on brand image.

Levi’s call to skip wash day manipulates sustainability concerns, protecting natural resources at the same time as strengthening the brand. Other retailers will be expected to make similar changes and commitments, but where and how do they begin?

Products made with purpose

Across the retail world, brands are waking up to fundamental shifts in consumer preferences. Online fashion store ASOS, for example, now has an eco range. Similarly, high street health and beauty retailer Superdrug has developed a vegan own brand. This is a direct appeal to consumers that the brand is doing the right thing. Whether you’re vegan or not, a ‘cruelty free’ mascara can be much more attractive to buyers than one that isn’t.

Today, of course, most products can avoid explicitly stating that they use non-sustainable palm oil, or forced labour, or that they are tested on animals. In future, the brands that make and sell them should expect this to change. There can be no ignoring the fact that consumers are more willing to support brands that care about societal and environmental good. The difficulty lies in being genuine – and not just fronting another greenwashing campaign.

Tech for good

Technology is paramount to building a truly sustainable business. Retailers are already applying advanced data analytics to supply chains to make the most of resources and reduce waste, which has a knock on effect in terms of sustainability. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will continue to improve operational efficiency across different organisations, cutting down on energy and expenditure.

Despite debate over the sustainability of blockchain, distributed ledger technology could bring about the transparency that could kill environmentally or socially questionable products. Blockchain could provide visibility across the entire supply chain, so buyers know exactly where it came from, and how it was made. Richline Group, for example, is already using blockchain to ensure that its diamonds are ethically sourced.

Materials science also has an important role in finding new materials that are cheaper and lower maintenance than existing alternatives. 3D printing is key to working with new materials, creating rapid prototypes for testing. The adoption of innovative manufacturing techniques like 3D printing and advanced robotics is hoped to make supply chains more efficient. The availability of automated systems may also mean that ethically questionable job roles will be carried out by machines instead of humans. This is a double edged sword, because while workers may avoid exploitation, they could be left without a job.

Sustainability is far from simple, but it’s an effort worth taking. Sustainable brands are more likely to connect with their consumers, as they go beyond the unfeeling process of creating, selling, and profiting. Then there are the added benefits of cost and waste reduction. In retail, the advantages are even more acute. Customer facing brands are under immense pressure to maintain a positive image, and as we have seen from the likes of Patagonia, Marks and Spencer, and Levi’s, this is fundamental to customer loyalty and business longevity. Ultimately, the best way to use sustainability as a driver for brand growth is to genuinely commit to it.

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