Can retail be sustainable? Learn from the brands redefining the industry with our sustainable retail guide

Some commenters say it’s never possible to be a sustainable retailer.

What do you think?

Retail is an industry that’s built from supply and demand, meaning business hinges on economies of scale. Consumerism fuels the production engine, yet this machine of build-buy-bin is running at a rate our planet cannot support.

For example, in the United States, 2020 saw ~2.63 million tons of returned merchandise dumped as landfill waste. Which is 16% higher than the previous year. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from transporting returns have also increased over the years, reaching 16 million metric tons of C02e.

Yet, there are brands across the world making a difference and redefining what it means to be a successful retail business. These brands have built a robust model, one that delivers value across the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.

The Green Business Bureau’s sustainable retail guide

At the Green Business Bureau, we see these brands and the difference they’re making. We wanted to take the time to not only acknowledge their work, but to also learn from their successes, as we know the power of sharing ideas, learning together, and inspiring each other.

And so, we’ve assessed the business landscape and identified 40 initiatives to create our sustainable retail guide (download our sustainable retail guide here).

To produce this guide, we’ve listened to people like you – the leader, executive, employee, and consumer – to find out what your pain points are. And with this in mind, this guide will address the top 6 challenges retail brands may face as they evolve into a sustainable business.

The Green Business Bureau’s retail sustainability resource library

We’ve also been working hard behind the scenes to develop our retail sustainability resource library. This library is to be used supplementary to our Sustainable Retail Guide. Each article in this library provides an in-depth overview, along with actionable solutions to address key issues the sustainable retail business will face. Click on the links below to navigate through this article.

The Green Business Bureau is here to support you, to help you create a purpose-driven organization that gives back and delivers a better world for our children. After all, who wouldn’t want that?

We want sustainable retail. Let’s make it happen (the rise of the sustainable retail brand)

In 2021, over of retail brands established long-term sustainability goals and targets, while also distancing themselves from partners unwilling to meet their sustainability needs. On top of this:

  • 53% of brands stated that improving sustainability is a top priority;
  • 40% of brands are investing in more sustainable packaging;
  • 60% of brands are launching products with a positive environmental or social impact;
  • 41% of brands are investing in transparency to effectively communicate their sustainability vision and goals.

Changing stakeholder expectations has sparked this shift. For instance, 44% of consumers are more likely to choose a brand with a clear sustainability commitment (after having assessed product quality and price). In addition, 35% of brands are investing in sustainability and social causes to improve employee recruitment and retention.

Hence, the market is changing. Retailers! You must not fall behind.

6 challenges the sustainable retailer faces

Sustainable development in the retail sector comes with a unique set of challenges, and the Green Business Bureau has summarized these below:

  1. Challenge #1 – lack of trust: It’s difficult to accurately showcase an organization’s sustainability achievements, avoid greenwashing and establish consumer trust in a cynical market.
  2. Challenge #2 – lack of standards: There’s no hard-set definition for sustainable retail. There’s a lack of universally recognized parameters to measure retail sustainability.
  3. Challenge #3 – many consumers don’t care: Consumers want sustainable choices, yet there remains an attitude-behavior gap. Consumers make a choice based on their assessment of product design, quality, price, and then sustainability.
  4. Challenge #4 – upfront investment required: Sustainability is a long-term strategy. Retailers have to make investments today to orchestrate lasting business value. This is especially difficult for discount/value-end brands.
  5. Challenge #5 – conflict of interest: Let’s address the elephant in the room. Traditionally, the retail market thrives from excessive consumption, and so marketing messages are tailored to drive this consumption. The sustainable retailer has to tell consumers to buy less, which is challenging for business models that leverage economies of scale.
  6. Challenge #6 – complex supply chains: Retail outlets are a single node in a complex value chain, connected by diverse relationships between many stakeholders. This makes it difficult for one retailer brand to have a positive impact on the entire web of operations. Supportive and collaborative relationships, with a multitude of stakeholders that share a similar vision and values, are what’s needed.

Solutions to the challenge of creating sustainable retail

Our sustainable retail guide gives 40 actionable initiatives to mitigate the six main challenges a sustainable retail business may face. That is:

  • Building stakeholder trust: We detail how you can effectively and accurately communicate your achievements, establish consumer trust and avoid greenwashing through storytelling, green business certification, and by leveraging your digital assets (e.g. social media, websites, and blogs).
  • Defining retail sustainability: Our guide acts to define sustainability in retail.
  • Creating additional value for customers: Our guide illustrates how sustainability can create additional value for your customers, on top of having a well-designed, high-quality product. In this sense, sustainability is a unique selling point.
  • Introducing low and high-effort initiatives: Our sustainable retail guide presents low-effort initiatives along with longer-term solutions. You can kick-start your sustainability journey straight away with low-hanging fruit, while you work towards goals that demand more effort but deliver lasting value.
  • Building value from minimalism: You’ll build a brand that promotes minimalism over consumption, following the footsteps of successful international retailers who have championed this shift.
  • Creating a sustainable value chain: Our sustainable retail guide details how you can work with multiple stakeholders to support sustainable development, and how you can reduce the environmental impact of your value chain.

Each initiative in our sustainable retail guide is not designed to work in isolation. One initiative will have compounding effects across your business. That is, a single initiative will support a multitude of other initiatives. As you progress, the returns from your efforts will be amplified.

Sustainability in retail: Sustainable retail guide checklist

Below we’ve detailed our sustainable retail guide checklist for your review. Download our complete guide using the form below. Our complete guide will give you further information on how to achieve each initiative.

A Sustainability Program Checklist for Retail Stores

Sustainability Guide for Retail

The Sustainability Guide and Checklist for Retail Stores serves as a manual on how to launch and manage a sustainability program across all your stores. It is ideal for sustainability leaders and store managers.

Building design, construction, and retrofit

Initiative #1: Design buildings for the long term
Initiative #2: Design for climate change resilience
Initiative #3: Incorporate recovery materials into the building design process
Initiative #4: Use materials and products as efficiently as possible
Initiative #5: Source from responsible suppliers
Initiative #6: Procure building materials and resources locally
Initiative #7: Select materials with a low VOC content
Initiative #8: Measure embodied energy and carbon emissions
Initiative #9: Assess your building’s impact with environmental assessment methodology

Retail store emissions and carbon footprint

Initiative #10: Minimize energy used for lighting
Initiative #11: Efficiently control internal temperatures
Initiative #12: Close the door
Initiative #13: Utilize energy-efficient equipment
Initiative #14: Measure, report and reduce business scope 1 emissions
Initiative #15: Measure, report and reduce business scope 2 emissions
Initiative #16: Measure, report and reduce business scope 3 emissions
Initiative #17: Offset remaining GHG emissions

Water use

Initiative #18: Measure and monitor water consumption
Initiative #19: Identify and manage water leaks
Initiative #20: Retrofit bathrooms and breakrooms with water-efficient equipment

Business waste

Initiative #21: Implement an effective waste management system and aim for zero waste
Initiative #22: Implement an effective inventory management system
Initiative #23: Minimize packaging waste

Products and services

Initiative #24: Offer sustainable products
Initiative #25: Measure and score the sustainability performance of your products
Initiative #26: Implement a buyback, repair, and recycling program

Supply chain

Initiative #27: Develop a sustainable supply chain
Initiative #28: Measure and offset supply chain scope 3 emissions
Initiative #29: Reduce emissions from the transportation and distribution of good

Internal operations

Initiative #30: Go paperless
Initiative #31: Go digital
Initiative #32: Implement lean process design

Stakeholder communication and support

Initiative #33: Support the local community
Initiative #34: Support your employees
Initiative #35: Mobilise your team and create a green culture
Initiative #36: Be transparent
Initiative #37: Collaborate
Initiative #38: Give back to the environment
Initiative #39: Tell your sustainability story
Initiative #40: Get certified

Sustainability in retail: Retail sustainability resource library

Welcome to the Green Business Bureau’s retail sustainability resource library. Here you’ll find expert content that addresses key challenges the sustainable business faces.

Eco Friendly Retail Packaging Complete Guide (Sustainable Packaging Innovations

In this Green Business Bureau eco friendly retail packaging guide, we explore sustainable packaging solutions for 6 of the most common types of packaging materials used. We explain our current waste crisis in detail, before defining an effective business waste management strategy to reduce packaging waste.

Click here to access: Eco Friendly Retail Packaging Complete Guide (Sustainable Packaging Innovations.

Employee Engagement in Retail Sustainability (Green Culture Guide)

In this Green Business Bureau article, we argue corporate culture is inherently linked to employee engagement. Hence, we propose that by creating a green retail culture, you’ll engage your employees to willingly bring about sustainable change, creating the momentum you need to achieve your sustainability goals. With this in mind, we will then detail how you can create a green culture for your retail business.

Click here to access: Employee Engagement in Retail Sustainability (Green Culture Guide).

Retail Business Sustainability Guide: Retail Sustainability Initiatives and Trends

At the Green Business Bureau, we know retail business sustainability requires a complete redesign of the current business model. In this Green Business Bureau article, we give 7 sustainable development opportunities that arise from the key market trends we’re witnessing today. Using these trends we then present retail sustainability initiatives that will help you kickstart your organization’s sustainability program.

Click here to access: Retail Business Sustainability Guide: Retail Sustainability Initiatives and Trends.

Eco friendly Plastic Bag Alternatives for Sustainable Retail Businesses

Eco friendly bags for retail address the damaging environmental impact of the common, single-use plastic (polyethylene) bag. In this Green Business Bureau article, we explain how your retail business can make a difference by seeking eco friendly plastic bag alternatives. We present eight alternative materials to be used in place of the standard polyethylene bag and compare the environmental impact of each. We then detail eight providers of eco friendly bags to help your business meet your green goals.

Click here to access: Eco friendly Plastic Bag Alternatives for Sustainable Retail Businesses.

10 Eco-Friendly Packaging Alternatives for Your Business’s Shipping Needs

As consumer pressure mounts for environmentally friendly products and services, the demand for eco friendly packaging alternatives has skyrocketed. To help your business meet consumer demand, this Green Business Bureau article presents 10 eco friendly packaging alternatives to meet your business shipping needs and outlines how you can get certified for your efforts.

Click here to access: 10 Eco-Friendly Packaging Alternatives for Your Business’s Shipping Needs.

The sustainable retail model

The sustainable retail business delivers long-term value to the consumer. High-quality products are made to last, creating a system that promotes minimalism over consumerism. This is a model that also leverages the idea of a circular economy, using the 3-R concept of reduce, reuse, and recycle. Sustainability is championed at the core of the business, rallied by an organization’s green culture. As such, sustainability fits seamlessly into the brand’s story, with achievements communicated accurately and together with an organization’s environmental and social challenges. The sustainable retail business will look to collaborate across its entire value chain, to engage each stakeholder in sustainable development. And this development is viewed as a continuum of improvement, beginning with low-effort initiatives that work to drive momentum and fund higher-effort but higher-return progress. In addition, employees and communities are supported using a people-focused approach to business.

With strong social and environmental pillars, economic success is bolstered. Hence, the sustainable retail business is a robust retail model designed for the future.

Is Green Certification Right For Your Business?

The Case For Green Certification White Paper

Get your copy of Green Business Bureau’s in-depth look at the opportunities, benefits, market trends and business case available to greener businesses.

See why green business is good business. Learn how certification elevates your brand and engages employees to create a green company culture.

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