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Sustainability in retail: a deep dive into the lesser known initiatives

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Sustainability is a growing concern across the globe. The United Nations has emphasized the criticality of the 2030 sustainability deadline’s impact on humanity. The environmental impact of the retail industry is under fire as calls for greater retail sustainability are being made. Around the world, 85% of consumers’ have intentionally shifted towards being more sustainable in their purchases. And, over a third of consumers across the globe are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Retailers need to take heed and treat sustainability as the expectation it is, rather than the exception, going forward.

A growing number of companies in the consumer industry are beginning to understand their impact 86% of industry CxOs believe that, with immediate action, they can limit their impact on the environment. However, the progress being made is still not fast enough to reach the 2030 goal. The systemic change needed within the industry doesn’t happen overnight. Handling sustainability initiatives isn’t a linear process. It requires some thinking outside the box of the typical concerns in order to be more achievable. 

We will look at four lesser known strategies that retailers can leverage to increase their sustainability efforts.

Avoid overproduction by making inventory available from anywhere 

Overproduction undeniably contributes to global issues with pollution from emissions and waste. In the US alone, the fashion industry is responsible for 11.3 million tons of textile waste per year (that’s enough for 31 empire state buildings). Yet, the number of garments produced annually has doubled since 2000 and exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 2014. But even with an inventory this massive, 30% of the clothes produced are never sold and are either burned or destroyed, which has a significant impact on the climate. But for retailers, reducing their production impacts both the business’ ability to push the needle and the availability of items for customers. How can you make sure you have items ready to go with a decreased supply?

Not every item needs to be physically at every location, but every associate needs to be able to access and sell all the products across locations and channels. A silk shirt might do better in Miami than New York, but stores in New York still need to be able to sell it to customers who want it and get it into their hands efficiently. Some retailers offer specialized selections of inventory at different locations, others rely on ecommerce to extend the products and variations available in store. In either case, it’s critical to enable associates to see the complete inventory across locations and channels, share product details and images with the customer, and make the sale regardless of where the product is located. 

Reduce returns to reduce transportation emissions and waste 

Online sales accounted for over $1T of total US retail sales in 2021, but just over 20% of those sales were returned (approx. $218B). While it may not seem like it, returns come with their own sustainability issues. Returning online items doubles the emissions from transportation and in many cases, brands will discard returned items instead of reselling, leading to further pollution. Not to mention, returns decrease the revenue from sales, and may actually end up costing retailers money from shipping and digital transaction fees. All around, it’s beneficial to have goals in place on how to reduce returns.

When shopping online, it’s hard to predict just how something will look once it’s in your hands, and this is especially true of fashion. There is just no telling how the color, cut, or size will look on you when staring at the model. Or is there? In this new digital age, some retailers are turning to AR or VR for shoppers to virtually see how something looks on them before deciding to buy. While this feels like the amazing new technology of the future, there are still some issues. AR and VR aren’t always accessible to everyone, the technology is still immature, and still doesn’t fully replace the human element.

In-store associates can actually play a huge role in digital sales when online customers have access to them. Using instant messaging or video chat on mobile devices, associates can take online shoppers around the store to help answer specific human questions such as what does the fabric feel like? Is the blue more bright or dull? Will this dress still fit the same on a pear-shaped body? These questions are just more easily answered by a person, rather than a bot or a webpage. This way, shoppers can just buy the exact item they want, instead of one in each size and shade to determine which looks best just to send the rest back. This may not seem like a huge stride, but when you multiply the impact that just one shirt can have by the thousands of customers fashion brands have per year, it all adds up. 

Customer centricity is key to making programs effective 

Some shoppers may care more about carbon neutrality, others eco-friendly materials, and others may not care about any sustainable measures at all. For many consumers, sustainability is gate-kept by inconvenience. Whether that be by price, availability, or a mix of the both. Initiatives that make sustainability accessible and beneficial to the individual are great motivators to participate.

Recycling initiatives are a popular example of this. Electronic companies like Apple have taken accountability for their role in e-waste pollution and created programs that incentivize customers to return old electronics to be recycled properly. Some consumers may not care to recycle their old iPhone, but they do care about getting a couple hundred dollars off the newest version for their trade-in. And it’s not just for electronics. 

Clothing retailers like Plato’s Closet or ThredUp offer the opportunity to sell old wears for cash or credit for future purchases. Cosmetic brands like Revolution are cutting down on plastic packaging by offering refillable makeup for reduced price to encourage customers to reuse old cases for new products.

Circularity, the term for these cycles, has sprung up as a buzzword the last few years as it relates to waste reduction. Many brands are dabbling in it, but the ones making the biggest impact are spending time listening to their customers and finding ways to connect sustainability programs with customers values and incentives. Retailers are built to serve customers and engineering the right approach to sustainability is no different from selecting products or building experience in that the customer needs to be at the center. 

Communicating sustainability efforts is as important as performing them

Even with brands creating more initiatives for sustainability, there is still the issue of transparency and communication. Globally, 60% of consumers rate sustainability as an important criteria for making a purchase. More than ever before, customers want to know the story behind what they’re buying. It’s one thing to provide the ‘fine print,’ it’s another to bring values, stories, and products to life so that customers can make informed and engaged decisions. 

Leading retailers are making sure that they’re telling a consistent narrative across channels. While the broad scale marketing message bears weight, it’s only a piece of the puzzle–and one that many customers have learned to almost tune out. By contrast, associates have the power to cut through the noise and communicate in a way that sticks with customers through genuine conversations. 

Associates need to be educated in what the company is doing to promote sustainability, how their products support that mission, and given opportunities to engage with others who are passionate about the subject. Briefing associates about new sustainable products and programs keeps them up-to-date with the real time steps the company is taking. Leading retailers take it a step further by equipping their associates with endless aisle and brand-wide product catalogs that offer on-demand, in-depth knowledge on product specifics. This way they are able to connect with customers 1-on-1 about the new line of eco-friendly, fair trade cotton tees or how their favorite line of lipstick is now plastic-free.

Achieving sustainability at scale going forward

The expectations for retailers to take greater strides towards sustainability are becoming more and more relevant in today’s critical environment. Rethinking the way sustainability and environmental action are approached is an important part of ensuring a brand can manage it immediately and at scale. Some immediate steps to take include:

  1. Avoiding overproduction by making inventory available from anywhere puts the power in the hands of retailers to manage their own distribution and decreases the impact of excessive waste.
  2. Reducing returns by ensuring buyers are getting exactly what they want reduces transportation emissions and waste and creates more satisfied customers. 
  3. Keeping the customer central to sustainability initiatives is key to making the programs effective in the market.
  4. Communicating sustainability efforts is as important as performing them so there can be an accurate global gauge on the industry’s growth in the area.

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