#RetailTrends2020: Sustainable innovation

The start of the millennium’s third decade is already being defined by a social, cultural and business context in which environmental and sustainability debates have become mainstream. Whether it’s the global Extinction Rebellion protests or the nomination of climate activist Greta Thunberg as Time Magazine’s person of the year – people are more aware of environmental issues than ever before. This awareness is translating directly in to changing buying behaviour and consumer approaches to brands. Indeed, research conducted by Nielsen and The Conference Board found that a staggering 81% of global respondents felt strongly that companies should help improve the environment.

As such, for retailers, the next decade needs to be seen from a position where the importance of meeting the sustainability challenge is recognised – not only because of the urgency of the climate crisis, but also because what’s good for the planet is good for business. Indeed, government estimates suggest that green growth initiatives could see up to two-million “green-collar jobs” being created – and this new workforce fuelling the low-carbon economy could lead to exports amounting £170 billion a year by 2030.  

The landmark Paris Agreement targets must be met sooner if we are to stem the tide of the climate crisis. All organisations, including retailers need to play their part. But this doesn’t have to be at the expense of business. Leaders are showing that it’s possible to operate in a carbon neutral way in major markets, including the UK. Embracing sustainability in everything you do can lead to positive results. A green future will unlock new markets and prospects for businesses, high-skilled jobs in dynamic new industries for the workforce, and cleaner air and healthier lifestyles for citizens.

But what does embracing sustainability look like for retailers in the UK? It means creating realistic sustainability goals for your business, perhaps aligned to a scheme such as the science-based targets initiative. It means tackling inefficient buildings, making them net-carbon neutral, as buildings are responsible for 36% of CO2 emissions in the EU. Also, it means embracing a move toward sustainable vehicle usage, such as electric cars, as transport accounts for 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is about being smart and really examining how every element in your supply chain can be either built more sustainably (e.g. using 3D printing) or controlled more efficiently too (e.g. through IOT systems).

Furthermore, retailers can drive up profits by embracing the innovative technology that saves energy. Marks and Spencer is a good example here, turning to 3D-printed lights, generating energy savings in several of their UK stores. Meanwhile, European home electronics retailer Media Markt has installed a connected lighting system that gives staff the data to make smarter decisions about operations in order to meet the business’ sustainability objectives. It’s safe to say that retailers across the world have proven that actively enacting sustainability best practice doesn’t have to eat into profits. In fact, I would argue it can add to them.

As we bring in the new decade, retailers will have a responsibility to meet the demands that the climate crisis presents. It’s not enough for businesses to simply stand by. Indeed, from a business perspective, embracing sustainability efforts actually creates opportunities to drive up profits and meet the demands of an ever-enlightened, climate-alert community of ethical consumers. More importantly however, it is simply the right thing to do; the planet is getting hotter, our ice sheets are shrinking, and our sea levels are rising. Now is the time to act – and it is only right that everyone, including retailers, take steps before these changes become irreversible. Sustainable business and delivering growth are no longer mutually-exclusive goals; carbon neutrality is not only possible, it’s profitable.