Reacting to the increased demand for sustainability in retail

Project One and our customers have been thinking a lot about how the sustainability agenda is impacting the retail sector. This article highlights what we’re seeing in the industry and how the industry needs to be creative in how they approach sustainability.



Consumers want to change products


I have noticed a lot of new, more sustainable products recently, some examples include SuperDry with their line of Vegan shoes, organic cotton and jacket lining made from recycled bottles, Timberland Earthkeepers recycled footwear; Burberry’s sustainable Econyl Capsule collection (using recycled fishing nets and industrial plastics). This focus on sustainable products is being driven by customer demand – they want to buy products which have a minimal impact on the environment or are in fact making a new use out of an existing product through recycling. Buying a product says something about the purchaser and now that consumer wants to reflect their desire to look after the planet.



Consumers want products to last longer


Many brands are now offering repair services for products which in the past might have been thrown out or replaced, notably luggage brands, such as Tumi and Samsonite. This is another example of customer-led demand, but it has a great benefit for the company as well – increased customer loyalty and brand identity. The perception of quality is reinforced by products which are ‘built to last’.



Brands leading by example


Brands can educate consumers on more sustainable usage patterns. I first came across the Levi’s article while thinking about our fashion customers and how their business models are going to work in the future. The definition of ‘fashion’ is something that changes with consumers purchasing new items on a regular basis. We know this is bad for the environment due to the manufacturing process and the disposal of garments at the end of the lifecycle.


Levi’s did an in-depth study (it is 51 pages!) tracking the environmental impact of one pair of jeans from raw materials right through to disposal, including the expected usage in the middle. What I found unique and surprising about this report is the ‘bit in the middle’, the amount of energy and water used to actually care for, i.e., wash the product. By their estimation, 37% of CO2 emissions and 23% of water consumption is attributed to washing and caring for the jeans. It’s this kind of holistic thinking which seems to be missing from many debates on environmental impact and what can be done to minimise it.


Whilst a cynic could argue Levi’s was looking to shift focus away from their manufacturing impact, they did include a pretty frank assessment of their own negative contribution to the environment.


Aside from behavioural change such as washing less often and line drying rather than tumble drying, what is exciting is that related technology may contribute to lowering the environmental impact from more advanced fibres and materials which require less cleaning, will last longer and can be easily repaired, to better cleaning agents which reduce the volume of water required and work at lower temperatures. The full Levi’s study is available here.



How to make consumer goods more sustainable


The message we hear in conversations with our FMCG customers is that whilst it is very difficult to fundamentally change a business process, business model or wholesale consumer behaviour, there are many smaller changes which can be made directly (during manufacturing, distribution and disposal), and indirectly (influencing consumer behaviours through education and incentive), which are likely to ease the transition and make a meaningful impact. Sustainability is here to stay and with all change comes opportunity – those who can re-orientate their businesses to better protect the planet will not only do a good thing for all of us, but they will likely gain a competitive advantage in the market and profit from that investment.



Do you need change expertise?


As change professionals, at Project One, we know there is a limit to the ‘amount’ of change an individual or organisation can absorb at any one moment. When too much change is happening, there is usually some kind of negative reaction – resistance, lack of commitment or confusion. A key sign of change maturity is knowing precisely how much can be changed at any one time and how it will be easier to impact smaller changes across a wider group. If you’d like to talk more about this topic, please get in touch.

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