13 December, 2017

I’ve always loved working with retailers. The scale, pace and unshakeable commercial reality make this a real challenge for a practitioner like me. If I can change behaviours or material impacts here, I’ll retire happy!

This interest took me to the Edie Responsible Retail conference back in September. I wanted to hear from some new entrants to the fray, so I settled down to be inspired and discover what the retail world is doing to address the spiralling issue of resource use. How easy is it to act to reduce resource use, when your primary motive is to increase consumption?

Reaching the time of year for peak consumerism with Black Friday and Christmas adverts at every turn, the messages I heard from the industry still ring in my ears:

The customer is king, and they want new, cheap, products;
The argument of who’s really driving resource use, the retailer or the consumer? persists
Many retailers want to follow others before making a move from the status quo; and
There are a few elephants in the room, namely the fate of cheaply produced items such as fashion clothing, electronics along with single-use plastics and packaging.

Despite the clear challenges, those I talk to in the resources industry tend to agree that the retailer is the pivot in the machine, that this is where the opportunity for change lies.

It is all too easy for a retailer to blame the consumer, after all they are such tricky beasts… ’they buy stuff they don’t really need, then wantonly discard it, then they buy more stuff’… ’they should really be more responsible!’ But when ‘they’ becomes ‘we’, as consumers ourselves, I don’t believe any of us ever emailed a retailer to demand their toothpaste tube in a cardboard box, or to buy coffee in overpriced, unrecyclable jiggers, or for a product they can’t repair?

As for products in packaging you can neither get in to, nor recycle, I don’t think we asked for that either? I think we asked for better value products yes, but I suspect that product development teams did the rest. Engagement with the consumer is everything. Ikea has demonstrated this with huge success through its ‘Live Lagom’ peer to peer platform for trading resourceful messages. Clever, relevant to its business and engaging for customers, a bright contrast to the age-old argument of the consumer being the driver of waste.

So, what’s stopping progress? Whilst we wait for evidence of which resource use is the worst resource use, or which action will engage consumers the most, or which eco-label to use, I’m reminded that we’ve learned little from trying to convince the world of climate change for the past 20 years. There will never be enough, or the right data, to convince some people or boards to step off the treadmill because it is never going to say what they are looking to hear however, thankfully there is light on the horizon.

Surfdome is one brand taking a refreshingly authentic and practical approach to responsible retailing. It’s made the link between its plastic laden warehouse operations, its outdoorsy customers and the hugely topical marine plastic problem. It would be easy for them to say, “that’s not our plastic, or if consumers can’t make the effort to recycle it, that’s not our problem”. But instead it has made the issue central to the business through “The Plastic Project” and worked with awareness raising organisation, Less Plastic, to produce a great infographic to inspire other businesses. The company has made many changes, saving the equivalent of 1.2m plastic bottles from circulation to date, but it’s the ripple effect that really excites me. All this effort pays off, and not just for the environment.

Surfdome was recognised as a case study by the World Council for Sustainable Development and as one of the top 16 brands helping to save the ocean. What marketing department wouldn’t love that? Hello, favourite new brand! Engagement with the consumer is everything. Ikea has demonstrated this with huge success through its ‘Live Lagom’ peer to peer platform for trading resourceful messages. Clever, relevant to its business and engaging for customers, a bright contrast to the age-old argument of the consumer being the driver of waste.

I do believe that the tide has begun to turn, and some business leaders are willing to take a calculated risk, see wider value and interact more closely with their customers. They also appear to recognise that when you openly engage and give customers a platform, they will tell you that they want less waste…. And then reward you with enthusiasm and loyalty. So, my message for our retail partners in 2018 is that if you never try, you’ll never know. 2018 is a perfect opportunity for all of us to demonstrate how we can move forward with confidence, base our actions on simple principles, learn by doing, and begin the journey to address resource use at operational, supply chain and consumer levels.

This article by Emma Burlow, Head of Resource Efficiency at Resource Futures, appeared in the CIWM Online Journal.