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How Retail Can Rise to the Sustainability Challenge

Winning customers’ hearts and minds is half of the battle in today’s incredibly competitive retail environment. It’s no longer enough to simply offer a slick and seamless service across your multiple channels, while also creating an immersive in-store experience to encourage customers back into your store. You need to also engage with customers on a human and ethical level.

The Challenge

Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough certainly shone a light on the stricken state of the environment over the last few years. And it’s the younger Generation Z who are taking notice, as they are the ones with increased spending power and severe concern for the planet. Whilst the Visualsoft x Klarna GET. SET. GROW report indicates that 96 percent of businesses have taken steps to become more sustainable, our research also shows there is still a long way to go.

“There remains a huge gap between what brands say they want and what they’ll actually do to improve their sustainability practices. This goes for shoppers and brands alike,” said Dean Benson, CEO at Visualsoft.

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, a day won’t pass without sustainability making the headlines. Only recently Tesco announced it was introducing collection points for soft plastic packaging, starting with a roll-out in 171 stores in the south west of England and in Wales, the grocer has already noted that customers are returning more than 10 times the amount of plastic it had expected.

More retailers need to be highlighting problem areas in their businesses and demonstrating ways to fix them. But it can be overwhelming, especially when you need to keep in mind that the biggest challenge is to embark on this journey without looking like you are doing it purely to sell more products – consumers today crave authenticity and they will not shop with a brand if they can detect even the slightest hint of “greenwashing”. It may be all well and good focusing on the ‘how’ you will be more sustainable but the genuinity comes from the ‘why’. By creating a meaningful story and flaunting your brand values, it makes it easier for customers to look past going green for the sole reason of profitability.

Sitting down and really considering all areas of your business and supply chain is a good place to start. It’s not just about your products, but also about the energy use in your buildings, the technology you use to run your operations and your partnerships with other companies – are they also making efforts to become more sustainable as well?

6 in 10 Consumers
According to IBM 6 in 10 consumers are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact.
36% of Retailers
Just 36% of retailers use recycled materials in the manufacturing of new products
29% of Retailers
Only 29 percent of retailers are consolidating packages when shipping products to customers

Making a Difference

One brand which really took the issue of sustainability head-on is Adidas. Recycling is becoming incredibly important for sportswear brands as their products tend to contain a high volume of plastic, so using innovative sustainable materials is becoming one of the only ways they can hit their carbon neutral sustainability targets. This resulted in Adidas partnering with Parley to create a line of clothing from upcycled marine plastics. Although this may be one of the more positive stories, the same cannot be said for all, since just a third (36 percent) of retailers use recycled materials in the manufacturing of new products.

The beauty players have also had to step up to the plastic problem and we’ve seen recycling initiatives from the likes of Boots and L’Occitane. Despite this, the findings from our GET. SET. GROW, suggest that only 29 percent of retailers are consolidating packages when shipping products to customers.

Meanwhile, the already eco-conscious, Lush, is aiming to be completely package free after developing augmented reality technology that allows customers to scan products with their phone which identifies the item, and surfaces information and ingredients – removing the need for packaging.

But fashion is the industry often thrust under the spotlight when it comes to sustainability. The thing is, it’s difficult for fashion to both appeal to the trends of fast fashion while also significantly reducing carbon footprint and water usage – that said it’s likely that the Gen Z shoppers will be pushing the agenda and crying out for more sustainable options going forward.

Footwear brand, Allbirds, launched its brand purely on its sustainable values and have generated a cult celebrity following while existing high-street stalwart, H&M, launched a Conscious range to help them differentiate against the Primarks and Zaras of the world – whether you are established or just starting out, there is always a potential to become more sustainable.

Meanwhile, Visualsoft customer Little Mistress, launched a ‘Party Guilt Free’ campaign during the last peak period which saw incredible success through its social media campaign – proving that customers are craving eco-friendly fashion brands. Fabio Cancemi, former head of eCommerce and digital marketing at Little Mistress said:

“We were also able to reach a significant number of those that are environmentally conscious about their fashion, and share the opportunity to ‘Party Guilt Free’. The consumer response has been fantastic, and we’re thrilled to have introduced our growing brand and products to an even wider customer base.”

While launching new ranges with an eco-conscious mindset is obviously a great place to start, businesses must come back to assessing their entire operations if they want to be truly sustainable. For instance, in fashion, another big issue in the industry is overproduction, with retailers producing three garments for every one they sell.

Michael Beutler, director of sustainability, at the French luxury goods group Kering – owner of iconic brands such as Yves Saint Lauren and Gucci – pointed out at the Decoded Future event last year that predicting consumer demand with technologies like AI will allow retailers to have a much more accurate picture of what to order, by following in real-time what consumers are buying and not buying.

“The old model of retailing no longer works, as the pandemic has forced more consumers online. Making online shopping more sustainable is paramount, not only for retailer success, but more importantly for the fate of our planet.”

With retailers working hard to improve their green credentials, suppliers and commerce partners are also taking action. Klarna for example is championing ethical spending amongst its 90 million customers and 18 million monthly app users with a combination of initiatives from tracking shoppers’ carbon footprints on their app to ‘give backs’ that donate a proportion of spend to support worthy environmental causes – all backed by a £10 million green fund.


Its a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Starting your sustainability journey can seem like an impossible mountain to climb, especially when you don’t think your efforts will make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. But your customers – and especially your future Gen Z and Gen Alpha shoppers – really do care. And perhaps collectively, we can all make a difference if we really try?

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