The changing face of retail: Sustainability

The changing face of retail: Sustainability

The changing face of retail: Sustainability

Sustainability in retail is a hot topic right now. Consumers are demanding that retailers of all sizes and kinds transform how and what they are selling (and how they are selling), for a greener, more ethical form of consumerism.

Print media like Ethical Consumer magazine are seeing more and more people willing to pay more for ethical products. They offer ‘best buy’ advice to guide people in how to make better choices for everything from food and utilities to electric vehicles.

But what makes something ‘ethical’? It can include:

●Seasonal produce

●Less plastic

●Reduced packaging

●Recycled items

●Made with less water

●Locally made or manufactured

●Produced with renewable fuels

●Made from natural or sustainable materials

●Responsibly and ethically made

●Paying staff, suppliers and producers a fair wage

●Transported using clean energy

●Carbon offsetting

●Hire and rental, rather than buying

In 2022, a study by Deloitte found that consumers’ top five drivers of sustainability were producing sustainable products and packaging, reducing waste in manufacturing, committing to ethical working practices, reducing carbon footprints and protecting human rights.(1) The main limiting factor preventing more from shopping this way is the often increased cost of ethical products.

As a retailer, you may feel that becoming sustainable is an expensive step. Buying and selling for maximum profit may feel like the only logical option, but by taking steps towards ethical retailing, you can align yourself with a new customer base who is seeking to change how they live and shop. In an article in, industry experts are suggesting that the mantra of ‘growth at whatever cost’ needs to change.(2) Instead, the objectives of profit, people and prosperity are the keys to success in this new, ethically-driven world.

Businesses of all sizes and kinds are seeing the value in becoming more ethical - from retail giants, Amazon, who are building large-scale distribution sites that run on clean energy, use electric-powered vehicles for deliveries, and support local wildlife,(3) to supermarkets like Morrisons, who recently opened their first ‘eco store,’ selling loose items, have a zero waste policy, offer free customer recycling, all housed in a sustainably powered building.(4) A number of major fashion brands are offering hire services, recycling and sourcing goods made from organic cotton and other natural fabrics like hemp and bamboo. Uniqlo has a stated mission to make 50% of its products from recycled materials by 2030.(5) A number of supermarkets are already trialling environmental labelling,(6) with a view to unifying a single standard for FMCG’s and even courier and delivery services are accelerating their move to net zero.(7)

But there is a question of balance to consider, too. Many big brands saw an opportunity to reach these new, more thoughtful consumers and developed marketing messaging along greener credentials, only to fall flat on their faces. Being accused of ‘greenwashing’ - a term to describe companies who pertain to be green, but aren’t - is a fate that’s happened to a number of fast fashion and food and drink manufacturers and can be a label that’s hard to shake off. Authenticity is key.

There are small steps that all retailers can take toward a more ethical future. These include:

●Looking for and using more local suppliers

●Considering if there are areas for improvement in your supply chain

●Moving to recycled packaging, and limiting the amount that is used

●Offering to recycle or offering goods for hire, rather than simply selling

If you believe that you’re already on the way to being an ethically-driven business, tell the world! Make sure that your customers know what you do, how you do it and if you’re able, consider becoming B-Corp certified - a privately certified mark of assurance that your company meets key ethical and sustainable goals in what you do.(8)

None of us is perfect, but in the eyes of your consumer, showing that you’re trying to solve, rather than be part of the problem is the best first step you can take to building greater customer retention. A 20220 UK study by Opentext found that as many as 82% of customers said that they plan to prioritise purchasing from companies that have ethical sourcing strategies in place.(9)

Taking those first steps towards making a positive change can be hard, but they are a key way to ensure that your retailing business doesn’t get left behind. 


  1. Sustainability & Consumer Behaviour 2022 | Deloitte UK
  2. Retail is fundamentally bad for the environment. And doing better isn't easy.
  3. Levelling Up - The Logic of Logistics | Savills
  4. Morrisons opens first eco store - Retail Gazette
  5. Fast Retailing unveils eco supply chain and materials targets
  6. Co-op, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco to use virtual reality to test new environmental labelling - Internet Retailing
  8. B Corp Certification demonstrates a company's entire social and environmental impact.
  9. More than half of UK consumers would avoid buying from brands accused of working with unethical suppliers - Internet Retailing

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