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Sustainable sales: How retailers can help reduce their impact on the environment

With the US President claiming last year that he “doesn’t believe” in a report by his own government warning of devastating effects from climate change, and the recent social media whirlwind 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg has made while travelling from the UK to America to attend two climate conferences, the debate around our planet’s future is well and truly – pardon the pun – warming up.

A recent survey by Pew Research Center looked at the attitudes around climate change in a number of countries around the world. It showed that in almost all countries, the majority considered climate change a major threat.

Looking at the UK in particular, 66% considered it a major threat, 23% considered it a minor threat, and just 7% thought climate change was not a threat to the country. The media coverage around these global issues is also making an impact on the retailers in the UK.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) recently revealed that a number of leading retailers have been making huge progress in reducing their impact on the environment. This includes reducing carbon emissions by over a third and cutting the proportion of waste sent to landfill to just 2%.

The BRC reported that almost 30 retailers have signed up to the Better Retail Better World initiative, coming together to meet some of the biggest global challenges of the coming decades highlighted by the UN, including modern slavery and decent work, sustainable economic growth, inequalities, climate change and responsible consumption and production.

Using the widely recognised United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a framework, the heart of the initiative are clear, transparent and measurable goals developed with businesses and campaigners.

In 2018, carbon emissions reduced 36% in absolute terms, far surpassing the 2020 target of 25%, explained the BRC. Relative to shop floorspace, carbon emissions from stores, and energy-related carbon emissions from store deliveries were down 67% and 47% respectively. Efforts to tackle carbon reduction include the use of biofuels and renewable energy across the supply chain. Many retailers have set their own strict targets to bring down their carbon use.

“Consumers look to retailers and brands to provide ethical and sustainable products so that they do not have to double check themselves” Jane Bevis, OPRL

“We are facing a climate emergency; it is ever more important for businesses to unite to tackle these global challenges. While we can see significant progress being made, we should not underestimate the scale of the challenge before us,” comments Helen Dickinson OBE, chief executive of the BRC.

“The public wants to know that the food they eat, the clothes they wear and the goods they buy, are ethically made and responsibly sourced. Better Retail Better World brings together retailers to collaboratively play their part in creating a sustainable future.”

While it is great that some of the biggest retailers have taken a stand to do more to combat to reduce their impact on the environment, what can smaller retailers do to become more sustainable?

PCR asked Jane Bevis, executive chair of On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL), to outline some of the biggest issues retailers of all sizes are face when trying to be more sustainable.

“Many leading retailers have been actively engaged in encouraging customers to recycle for over ten years – they helped found OPRL for just that purpose in 2009. However, packaging is primarily there to protect product and for foodstuffs in particular, plastic packaging is both particularly effective in prolonging shelf life and ensuring food safety, and a very lightweight material that minimises the overall carbon footprint of a product. Food waste is a huge sustainability issue as it leads to methane emissions, a very damaging Greenhouse Gas, as well as being socially irresponsible,” explains Bevis.

“Unfortunately the UK’s recycling infrastructure has not developed as hoped over the last decade and it has, until recently at least, been cheaper for waste management companies to export some types of plastic waste for processing overseas rather than recycling here in the UK.

“Now that the public has become much more engaged and some South East Asian destinations have are refusing to accept unprocessed plastics we may see a kickstarting of investment infrastructure here. This will enable retailers to close the loop so that all packaging materials can provide sustainable solutions, and the choice of material can match the needs of the product.”

Customer involvement

While there’s plenty of things for retailers to think about when it comes to sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint, the reality is that those who buy their products also need to do their part to ensure all that hard work is respected – and packaging, as well as the products themselves, are recycled correctly. Retailers are in a good position to pass on advice to their customers and help with recycling queries.

“While there are many active consumers who want to understand how the products they buy are produced and whether they can be recycled at end of life, the majority of consumers look to retailers and brands to provide ethical and sustainable products so that they do not have to double check themselves on issues it is difficult for them to influence. For example, where a product is sourced, what the labour standards are and the impact on local water supply,” explains Bevis.

“However, most consumers want to get involved in issues like recycling where they can make a difference. 84% of consumers check packaging for recycling information, according to our consumer insight research. They get confused and irritated by recycling claims and symbols that don’t mean anything and don’t give them actionable information.

“In the UK it is only OPRL’s recycling labels that are based on the evidence of what is collected by councils, and so, tells consumers what they can recycle at home or at Bring Sites.”

She continues: “As a result three in four consumers recognise and understand these labels, and nearly 400 brands, retailers and their suppliers participate in the scheme.”

OPRL’s top five tips for retailers who are looking to be more sustainable

1. Understand your product characteristics and the life cycle analysis of its environmental footprint. Where are the hotspots? How can you mitigate them? Are there synergies with social and financial needs? The sustainability story is much larger than packaging, so get on the front foot – the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals set out the bigger picture.

2. Which products in your range need the most urgent attention? Address big impacts first and sweep up small impact issues as they fit with your priority interventions.

3. How do you engage your supply chain partners, colleagues, customers? Can you do this more effectively, for example, recruiting customers to be active recyclers?

4. Understand how all this fits with your brand values.

5. Find an engaging way to tell your story so you take everyone with you. There will be some hard choices to make so you need everyone to work with you even when it is difficult.

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