How Retailers are Responding to Sustainability (With Examples to Inspire You)

There are a lot of trends when it comes to retail. A few years ago the word “sustainability” was probably considered to be a passing phase. But that’s no longer the case. Customers care about the impact that their purchases have on the planet. Retailers are finding out that sustainability isn’t a trend — it’s here to stay.

If you head over to Canada, you’ll find Maison Simons offers customers the latest trends in clothing, accessories, and home décor — and the first zero net energy store in Quebec City.

Using industry-leading technologies to eliminate its carbon footprint, the store is designed to generate as much energy on-site as it annually consumes.

Powered by solar energy, the 80,000-square-foot space is heated and cooled using a geothermal system that regulates temperature by tapping into the energy of the earth. This improves its energy efficiency by 60%.

While that’s certainly setting the sustainability bar rather high, every retailer can make concentrated efforts to implement sustainable practices in their own business — even making it part of their brand.

Why retailers should pay attention to sustainability

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The first and most obvious answer as to why retailers should invest in sustainable practices is that ethically, saving the planet is a pretty smart thing to attempt to do. But it’s also what customers have come to expect.

According to a report by the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), 93% of global consumers expect more of the brands they use to support social and environmental issues. It also found that 68 million adult Americans make purchasing decisions based on their personal, social, and environmental values. Additionally, they’ll spend up to 20% more on environmentally sound products.

In a study by Cone Communications, they found that 87% of Americans would purchase products from businesses who advocate for social and environmental responsibility. And if that brand behaves in a way contrary to that, 76% would boycott the business.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

How to make your retail business more sustainable

Knowing you should focus on sustainability and putting that into action are two different things. It can feel overwhelming to implement changes. But you don’t have to go to the extreme of a net-zero energy store to make a difference. There are smaller steps you can take to lower your footprint — and connect with your customers.

Consider packaging alternatives

Regardless of your size, and whether you have a brick-and-mortar or an e-commerce retail presence, you deal with packaging. However, many conventional packaging materials are extremely damaging to the environment. In fact, plastic pollution is degrading ecosystems and wildlife — and customers are taking notice.

According to Coleman Parkes Research, 88% of consumers want packaging to provide more information about sustainability. Sixty-eight percent say the environmental impact of a product’s packaging affects their purchasing choice. Last, 92% of consumers would prefer paper-based over plastic-based packaging.


But clearly not dealing with packaging isn’t an option. You need to ship goods, and in addition, your packaging can be a strong part of your branding. So what’s a retailer to do? Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Look to Emma Gash, the founder of Australian cosmetics brand Byron Bay Bath Bombs, for a good example. For her, reusable packaging was the most effective way for her to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. “Along with the custom tissue paper, I use a paper sticker on a cardboard cylinder. These are both recyclable, and the cylinder can be repurposed for many things; as a pen holder, a planter box, and some local customers even return them!”

Also, consider going paperless — at least with receipts. According to research, 250 million gallons of oil, 10 million trees, and 1 billion gallons of water are used to create receipts just in the U.S. each year. Switching to email receipts instead not only considerably reduces a business’s carbon footprint, but it eliminates the chance that the receipt is later discarded as waste.

Plus, including links to your website and your social media platforms — as well as news about upcoming promotions and events — on your e-receipts increases the chance of increasing sales.

Time and resources spent planning are wasted if the program is not executed

Make it part of your brand story

If you’re making concerted efforts to reduce your carbon footprint, the next thing is to make sure your customers are aware of your efforts. You need to incorporate sustainability into how your brand communicates with customers. Therefore, they know what you stand for and what they stand to gain by supporting your business. It shows them it’s not just a trend, but a part of what you are.

Patagonia is a company that has recently doubled-down on their environmental efforts and make their feelings about the global crisis well-known. Part of their response involved changing the way that employees think about the company’s mission. While it started as just to do “no unnecessary harm” to the environment, the new mission statement embodies a responsibility to proactively do good.

According to Patagonia President and CEO Rose Marcario at NRF’s Big Show, Patagonia is responding proportionally to recent threats and impacts to the environment in keeping with its mission.

“We’ve been funding activism for three decades. It’s not really that different for us,” Marcario said in response to questions about the company’s political stance. Marcario also notes that younger consumer bases are more aware and interested in those movements. “We really know our customers and they know us, and what I see more is that younger people are coming to the brand because they recognize the climate crisis in a much different way than my generation, probably, and their experience is really first-hand.”

Focus on the message you send out to customers through emails, blog posts, and your social media channels. Keep them up to date with your efforts. This will show them you’re in this long-term and are committed to the needs of the planet — and your customers.

Recycle old goods

Don’t just sell new items to your customers; look into ways you can help them give their old goods a second life. Nike’s has a Reuse-A-Shoe program that collects used shoes that are recycled into material separated and turned into granules, ready to serve as new clothing, footwear, or even sports and playground surfaces.

Another example is The North Face. According to the company, “We can’t stop people from outgrowing their clothes, wearing through them or deciding that it’s time for something new. However, we can help to ensure that worn clothes don’t end up in landfills.”

That’s why they created Clothes the Loop, which collects used clothing and gives customers a $10 off a purchase of $100 or more. Those items are then turned into products like insulation, carpet padding, stuffing for toys, and fibers for new clothing.

Consider collecting unwanted items that can be repurposed or donated to someone who can use them. Offer a promotional voucher for your store to customers who bring items in.

Help customers lower their environmental footprint

According to a survey, 88% of consumers want brands to help them lower their footprint. They’ll be more likely to frequent your business if you help them in their efforts. By helping your customers to offset the impact of their retail habits, it helps them to feel more empowered as consumers. This gives them confidence that your business is out to make a long-term difference.

A simple plastic lid from Starbucks recently made headlines because it’s going to help replace the use of more than a billion plastic straws each year. Customers expressed concern about plastic use. According to the company, the new cold drink lid uses nine percent less plastic than the former lid and straw combined.

Starbucks is currently testing alternative materials to replace plastic straws completely as part of its goals to eliminate plastic straws and to double the recyclability, compostability, and reusability of its cups and packaging. 

As a retailer, you can offer reusable or home compostable bags for your customers. Or pledge to donate a small part of your profits to a related charity. Closely tie your initiatives to your retail sector, which will show your commitment to changing the industry — and the world — and gives customers a way they can also give back.

Bonus tip: conduct retail audits

Already running sustainability projects in your retail business? See to it that your initiatives are carried out correctly by conducting store audits.

For example, if you’re implementing an in-store recycling program create a document and checklist that outlines how the procedures works. Then audit the process sometime after the program is implemented to ensure that everything is up to snuff.

Final words: transparency is key

Being authentic and transparent is key and of growing importance to consumers, just as sustainability is becoming mandatory for long-term growth. Share your mission and your efforts with your customers. It’s not bragging; it’s giving them the chance to further their own sustainability efforts by supporting a sustainable business that aligns with their values.

Not only can sustainability bring in more customers, but you can also save money, resources — and ultimately — the planet.

About the author:

Francesca Nicasio is retail expert, B2B content strategist, and LinkedIn TopVoice. She writes about trends, tips, and best practices that enable retailers to increase sales and serve customers better. She’s also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores.

One thought on “How Retailers are Responding to Sustainability (With Examples to Inspire You)

  1. Great article. I hope the execs from my favorite stores i.e., DSW, Chico’s, Soma, and White House Black Market, are reading your article and putting more of those suggestions into action! Sustainability is key to a healthy planet for all inhabitants.

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