As consumer values are rapidly evolving, and the demand for businesses and brands to support causes that benefit society is rising, Ian Johnston, Founder of Quinine considers the importance and expectation of having a clear, achievable sustainability strategy.

Being sustainable is no longer a ‘nice to have’, it must be the foundation that every business builds upon, and brands with a physical retail presence are uniquely placed to have significant impact.

What Is Sustainability?
Whilst sustainability is commonly considered a conversation around the protection of the world’s natural resources, the broader definition includes three core pillars: environmental, economic and social sustainability. All of these must be invested in, if we are to achieve the UN’s goal of ‘peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future’.

A Collective Responsibility: Governments, People And Brands
The commitment to creating a pathway to sustainability is ramping up. Progressive movements such as the UN’s 2030 initiative for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change, demand that governments enforce change. But policy can only have impact if it’s followed by action. This ranges from the household that commits to using less energy to the large-scale impact of corporations taking responsibility for their sustainable development. We see brands like Chanel committing to financial bonds with built-in sustainability clauses. Businesses like Vodafone are reviewing their supply chains, and manufacturers like LEGO, are setting ambitious materials goals – committing to producing only sustainably made bricks by 2030.

We’re seeing great progress, but for every brand doing great things, there are many that must do more. No matter how big or small, they all have a role to play, and this of course includes brands with a physical retail channel.

Ace & Tate’s Antwerp store, Amsterdam

The Role Of Physical Retail
Despite the disruption the pandemic has brought, retail will always remain integral to global society. Furthermore, retail’s role in society is evolving. Consumers are looking to retailers and brands to lead by example, to educate and deliver cultural influence. The pandemic has seen consumers adjusting their lifestyles to reduce their environmental impact, and increasingly they are actively choosing brands that demonstrate sustainable values.

Through their stores, retailers are in a powerful position to deliver sustainability. Alongside the opportunity to address their own impact, through face-to-face in-store experiences they can have significant social impact on their customers, by raising awareness of causes, educating individuals about the issues and inspiring them to take action.

Unfortunately, too many retailers are missing the opportunity to leverage their physical stores to encourage social change. While sustainable storytelling can be good to raise awareness, it may risk coming across as green-washing. To fully seize the opportunities available to them, retailers must use the physical store to involve both staff and customers in dynamic and engaging activities. It’s here that people begin to learn and become inspired to change their own habits and reduce their footprint. This demonstrates social impact. It also creates a different and stronger connection between customer and brand. No longer is it solely transactional, but a partnership built upon shared goals and achievements, one that builds greater
brand affection and loyalty.

The potential reach of retail is extraordinary. Using the store as a tool to raise awareness, educate and inspire, brands must take the responsibility of leveraging their reach to have a positive impact on society. This is the power of the physical retail space.

H&M looop Initiative, Stockholm, Sweden

How Are Retailers Delivering Sustainable Development?
Too many retailers believe that their sustainability story is solely about the store environment and the materials they use. Whilst material choice is important, brands and retailers must look at sustainability through a far wider lens. With an understanding of the far-reaching scope of sustainable development, the opportunity to take relevant and meaningful action becomes, in some way, a little easier. To help understand some of the questions a brand must answer, below are five areas that demonstrate the range of sustainable development strategies in physical retail.

  1. Store Environment
    Architectural finishes, fixture design and materials should all be considered in a brand’s drive to become more sustainable. The challenge is to translate this into a meaningful and authentic in-store story that involves the customer and encourages change.
  1. Property Selection And Location
    Retailers must understand the transport infrastructure used by employees and customers to get to their stores. Is it a new or existing building? Is it in a mall, strip-mall or high street? Do the landlords have a sustainable agenda? Understanding these factors, retailers must define plans to alleviate the associated impact.
  1. Store Operations And Facilities
    If a brand is able to address big-ticket items such as supply chain, energy consumption, climate control, water usage etc. the impact can be huge. But smaller adjustments like understanding how to reduce waste in-store are equally important.
  1. Products And Services
    Brands can use their product assortment and in-store services to demonstrate sustainable action. Are the products sustainable? How are they packaged? Offering in-store services, like repairs and refurbishments, can encourage people to change habits and live more sustainably.
  1. Brand Initiatives
    Retail teams need to ‘mine’ their own businesses for opportunities. Often organisations are already doing great things, but miss the opportunity to leverage the retail channel to tell these sustainability stories and inspire customers.

Focus On The Small And The Big Things
Wherever possible, retailers need to take company-wide action, introducing both small and big changes, and these must go beyond a materials’ review.

This holistic approach is a challenge and can appear overwhelming. It demands investment of time and money, and the alignment of multiple stakeholders. Most importantly, it demands that an achievable sustainable strategy is put in place. Progress comes from the ongoing development of multiple initiatives with pre-defined checkpoints along the journey, enabling retailers to monitor their development. It’s a large undertaking, but despite these challenges, retailers are already proving that it’s possible.

Establishing a sustainable strategy needs to be a core focus of every retail business now. These strategies cannot simply be sustainable announcements; they must be authentic and lead to meaningful action. Physical retail stores must be leveraged to raise awareness, educate and inspire customers and staff to make changes and adjust their own habits.

Having a sustainable strategy is important to retailers, not just because they have a responsibility to manage their own environmental and economic impact, but they are uniquely positioned to have a social impact and encourage global change.