Emma Robinson
Emma Robinson
Posted 27 September 2022

What does sustainable growth look like for retailers?

Topics: Sustainability

Deloitte research shows that the number of consumers that adopted sustainable lifestyles drastically rose in 2021. Conscious consumerism is changing the game – and retailers need to act fast if they’re to meet the challenges this presents.

At Lifecycle, our flagship event for retail marketers, we hosted a variety of speakers from retail, all talking about growth, but one of the stand-out keynotes explored how the mission for growth intersects with the mission to achieve sustainability. Can growth be sustainable? What changes and considerations need to be made in the retail industry in order to be successful and sustainable? Carrie Lomas – Founder and CEO at Brand Conscience, an organisation focused on accelerating conscious consumption amongst brands and consumers alike – tackled this question in her session entitled ‘What does sustainable growth look like?’

The question she posed to retailers from the outset was “how do we grow – and how do we do it responsibly?”

The sustainability conundrum 

Carrie kickstarted the session by highlighting the lack of awareness surrounding genuine sustainability: “When you Google ‘sustainability’, what you’ll find is lots of lovely, warm fuzzy pictures – but it’s all quite vague. There isn’t anything to say what ‘sustainability’ really is.” 

She pointed out that companies are always quick to imply that they are working towards sustainability targets. Publishing a statement saying that environmentally-friendly practices will be rolled-out by 2050, however, is easy. Demonstrating an ongoing commitment to meaningful change is an effective way to stand out from the crowd.  

And this starts with developing an understanding of your target audience. Carrie stressed the need to establish a dialogue with consumers: “You have to get to know your customers incredibly well. You need to understand what, for example, millennials and Gen Z want – and what they care about. People care about people, they want to make sure they’re doing no harm to people – and they want to make sure they lift people up.” 

She was quick to back this up with some real-world evidence. Brand Conscience was recently involved in a research project alongside leading global universities – including Oxford, California State, Portsmouth and Manchester Metropolitan. The goal was to “gain an understanding around how consumers perceive sustainability and ethics – as well as the way they prefer to be communicated to.” 

The project received feedback from 340 young people – and its findings included: 

  • 52.5% of consumers are willing to pay between 1-6% more for an item that is sustainably labelled
  • 74% of young consumers surveyed felt concerned about the future of the environment
  • 70% of young consumers surveyed are interested in a dedicated, standardised sustainability labelling system  

This doesn’t mean that retailers can simply raise their prices and reap the financial rewards. Rather, investing in sustainable, cost-effective operations and products can lead to improved revenue returns. 

Carrie also offered recommendations on the key areas that brands should prioritise moving forward: “We’ve seen some amazing cases in the news over the last couple of years – even in lockdown – where brands have broken trust and found it very hard to claw it back. Trust takes a long time to build – and it can be lost in a second.” 

Establishing dialogue and forging relationships with consumers is all well and good – but it needs to be built on a foundation of trust. Otherwise, retaining clients will become an impossible task. 

Brand equity is the cornerstone of long-lasting companies. And it should not be just a short-term target. Creating affinity over a sustained period helps build trust. Sometimes this requires a departure from old methods. 

Carrie spoke about the new Levi’s initiative – and the company’s new Tailor Shops which promote repairing, reusing and recycling: “Levi’s have put a tailor shop in each of their new stalls – the idea behind this is that they can repair and individualise products. Putting on a new button, embroidering jeans – they are trying to incentivise consumers to wear products longer. And when the clothes are done, they’ll take the denim back and recycle them into different textile products.”

And Levi’s isn’t the only firm taking a practical stand. Tesco has partnered with Loop – the global reusing platform – in ten of its stores. The goal has been to try and reduce the amount of single-use packaging used in groceries and detergents. This tangible action is demonstrating a willingness to change – and make a difference – to consumers. 

Carrie rounded her session off by reinforcing the need for transparency. There is no point in establishing environmentally-based targets only to keep them a secret from your audience. 

Hotel Chocolat is an ideal case study of what retailers should be doing: “[[they]] are declaring what their targets are publicly – these can be found on their boxes. They’re then updating the audience on how they’re doing.” 

Key Takeaways

  • Know your target market: establish a dialogue with consumers to learn what they think about sustainability – encourage constructive feedback
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of trust: relationships can be made – and broken – because of sustainability; building affinity needs to be a long-term target
  • Communicate with your audience: adopting sustainable practices shouldn’t be a dark secret – it should be celebrated

Watch Carrie’s session in full below, or here

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