To tackle the climate and ecological emergency retailers must forge new alliances, collaborate more broadly, and communicate more effectively. The challenge of creating a net-zero, nature-positive, just, and circular retail sector is too great for any business to achieve alone.

This was the standout message delivered by leading retailers at Retail Gazette’s recent Sustainability Debate, which Bioregional supported as an event partner. Delegates – including some of our current and past partners Kingfisher, Innocent, and John Lewis – heard retail pioneers share their experiences, success stories, and setbacks, and explain why better stakeholder engagement is key to a sustainable future.

Here are four key concepts that should form a core part of every retailer’s sustainability strategy in 2024:

1. Foster a culture of sustainability within your business

Even the simplest sustainability strategy will achieve nothing if colleagues don’t buy in to its success. Collaboration is key to creating change and accelerating progress towards collective goals, and the first step is to foster a culture of internal, cross-team collaboration that incentivises teams to work together to solve organisational challenges. When employees pull together and make the mental leap from ‘passengers’ to ‘crew’ you open the doors for innovation and creativity.

M&S’s former sustainability director Mike Barry emphasised how essential stakeholder buy-in across your organisation is. A key success of M&S’s ‘Plan A’ is how it uses emotion to unite its 83,000 employees, giving them the confidence to commit, he said.

A key task will be to resolve any tension between sustainability and other departments. Always reinforce how delivering your sustainability strategy will help colleagues achieve their aims, be it through cost savings, enhancing your brand, or futureproofing your business against future regulations, and look for ways to share responsibility and accountability. When embarking on your sustainability journey it is important not to underestimate the level of change management that is needed to activate your strategy.

Even the simplest sustainability strategy will achieve nothing if colleagues don’t buy in to its success.

2. Engage your supply chain

Supply chains typically contribute to over 90% of a company’s overall carbon footprint, so retailers must engage with their suppliers in a supportive manner to help reduce emissions across the value chain, as well as making other sustainability improvements such as responsible sourcing and improving supply chain transparency. It is essential to take your suppliers on the journey with you.

It can be useful to be aware of the expectations that are being put on suppliers from other retailers. Can you join forces with others in your sector to simplify gathering data from your suppliers? Every relationship is unique, and you will need to take a bespoke approach to supplier engagement. Mike Barry highlighted the benefits of M&S’s approach in driving systemic change, to ‘seek the best, avoid the worst and support the middle’.

3. Tell a story that resonates with customers

Another key stakeholder group are your customers – their support is fundamental to the health of your business – so it is essential to engage with them honestly, clearly, and in a way that speaks to their needs. Spell out the benefits of sustainability – does it make your product longer lasting, cheaper, or more easily repairable? Frameworks such as the EAST (Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely) model, while targeted at policymakers, can support you in applying behavioural insights to your marketing.

Do not be afraid to experiment – Decathlon launched a rental service in 2022 as part of its mission to become a more circular and sustainable business. It found that pivoting towards the financial benefits of rental resonated more with its customers than leading with a sustainability angle. If you want your customers to try new products and services, such as rental and repair, that require behavioural change, you need to make it convenient and attractive.

4. Think big and engage widely

You may think that engaging with colleagues, customers, and suppliers is enough, but leading retailers are looking beyond traditional audiences to forge new alliances. The climate and ecological emergency demands a sector-wide response so it is essential to think more broadly – can you collaborate with your peers on sector-wide initiatives to solve shared challenges, for example through sectoral trade bodies? How can you grow your influence with sustainability-minded campaign groups, such as the BRC and its Climate Action Roadmap, or with local and national government?

It is also crucial to look beyond your own sector for inspiration and learn from others who have had experience testing new ideas – communities, NGOs, and charities are all finding unique ways to drive sustainable change. Take the example of Lush, which has established a ‘Green Hub’ to facilitate collaborative work with partners, and a platform through which to engage schools and NGOs.

The climate and ecological emergency demands a sector-wide response so it is essential to think more broadly.

You may think that collaboration and engagement is a luxury in challenging economic times. However, retail pioneers recognise that this is an essential investment that will enable them to transition more quickly to the net-zero, nature-positive, just, and circular future that will be needed to secure a liveable future for our planet.

Are you embarking on your sustainability journey and not sure where to start? Or do you have a sustainability strategy in place that needs a refresh or a temperature check? Bioregional offers a suite of sustainability strategy services from creating your sustainability pillars, to engaging your Board, and providing insights into the most material areas of your business. Contact us to find out how we can support you.

Image credits: Reproductive health supplies coalition; Theo Crazzolara; Rohan Makhecha; all via Unsplash

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Katie Moen
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