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Retail Sustainability – Are We Environmental Hackers or Caretakers?

As we begin to recover from a pandemic that strained retail beyond conceivable belief – not to mention dramatically shifting shopping patterns and purchasing behavior – retailers face increasing pressure to commit to ambitious environmental and social goals. 

And consumers are making it clear that trite and shallow promises won’t be tolerated. They want to be part of the conversation and many are willing to open their wallets to prove it.

According to Deloitte’s Global Consumer Tracker, 55% of consumers purchased a sustainable product or service in 2021 and 32% said they paid significantly more for that purchase. 

Millennials and Gen Z’s are especially focused on investing in businesses whose products and services benefit the environment.

Starting the retail sustainability conversation

Let’s be clear, as retailers and manufacturers, we’re starting the conversation with a massive disability. The very core of our business involves producing products, which inevitably generate waste. 

No one goes shopping naked for new clothes, right? If we want to continue doing what we do best — making and selling products — doing it greener isn’t going to be easy.

If listening to customers, taking action and helping the planet are part of your business strategy, let’s start by looking at the myriad ways you can enter the path of retail sustainability. 

While there’s no doubt the future will be challenging, you have options — and that’s good. 

Have you considered these ideas?

  • Purposeful support of local communities and charities
  • Sourcing products made with upcycled materials and reduced packaging
  • Persistent social inclusion of gender and racial diversity in every aspect of your business

If we place becoming more sustainable at the heart of our organizations, the path ahead becomes a little easier to see. 

Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, told McKinsey & Company: “any company that wants to stay relevant in the future must think about sustainable behavior.”

Let’s look at a few ways you can begin your sustainable journey — with real-life examples to get you inspired.

Practice transparency

Staples has been a leader in corporate responsibility for more than 2 decades and because it’s a long-term focus, their transparency puts them in a leadership position. Their corporate responsibility focuses on these areas:

  • Environment. Working with brands to create more responsible sourcing, their strategy follows many products from cradle to grave. What’s more, they’re always looking for ways to support the businesses they serve to be more responsible as well.  
  • Community. When it comes to community, Staples empowers their local management teams to create programs that give back and lift up those in need locally. Check out Canada’s Even the Odds campaign for a smart partnership idea that might work in your business.

Source more sustainable products and use recycled, reusable or biodegradable packaging

For many retailers, big box cardboard, styrofoam and plastic wrap are the necessary tools of the trade. Raymore & Flannigan acknowledges the challenge and hits it head-on with their onsite sustainability initiatives. 

According to their website:

  • A team of 100% dedicated recycling associates have helped divert more than 200 million pounds of packaging from landfills since 2002.
  • Their dedicated delivery teams schedule deliveries based on fuel-efficient routes and their trucks are equipped with aerodynamic panels for increased efficiency.

Encourage and incentivize recycling

Mattresses are big and bulky, making shipping and returns complex, costly, and not exactly light on the carbon footprint scale. 

But did you know that more than 75% of a mattress can be recycled? Its metal components (springs for example) can be extracted and sent to scrap recyclers and wood elements can be used for fuel or chipped into mulch for landscaping. Foam padding can be repurposed into carpet underlay or used for pet beds.

More than 50,000 mattresses are discarded daily in the US. ByeByeMattress helps cut down on the illegal dumping of mattresses, supports job creation and reduces reliance on landfills. 

It currently provides resources, education and services in Rhode Island, California and Connecticut. If you’re not in one of those states, refer to byebyemattress.com for a comprehensive listing of services elsewhere across the country — with limited availability in Canada.

Free inspiration

Getting into the sustainability conversation doesn’t have to be painful or fraught with expensive (and overwhelming) projects. Begin by looking at what your cohorts are doing and decide what will work for you and your team. Starting small is fine because starting is the point here.

  • Avocado Mattress, a certified B Corporation® company, works with more than 1,500 donation centers nationwide to ensure their mattresses don’t end up in landfills – with a 95% success rate. What’s more, they donate 1% of all profits to planet-friendly programs.
  • Living Spaces supports their local communities through various mattress donation programs. According to their site:
    • 8,000+ mattresses donated
    • 2,000+ mattresses donated to veterans
    • 3,000+ mattresses donated to foster children
    • 1,500+ mattresses donated to California fire victims
  • Tepperman’s takes their sustainability efforts to an elite – and admirable – level. Earlier this year they installed solar panels on the roof of their largest retail store (pictured here) but their efforts go beyond conserving energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing waste sent to landfills.

    Whether you want to focus on greener business practices or corporate social programs, check out their annual sustainability report — you’re guaranteed to find ideas that are guaranteed to spark ideas with your staff.
  • Hudson’s Furniture distribution center is fully solar powered, making the building completely sustainable off the grid. They also purchase clothing remnants for the rags used in the warehouse — 25 lbs. a month. Recycling is also a big part of their sustainability efforts, with steel, foam, cardboard and pallets continuously being diverted from landfills.
  • Bedrooms & More has served their community organic and earth-friendly products for the home for 50 years. A family business that’s grown up with their community, their core focus has grown stronger with the next generation of leadership, moving from retail-only to developing their own line of ethically sourced bedding.

    Their community outreach is particularly impressive as they not only support local charities, they actively partner with them for long-term and long-lasting effect.
  • Bailey’s Furniture approaches sustainability through a strong support of local charities — and the list is long.  

Check out my other articles on the FAM:

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