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The role of technology in responsible retail

Demonstrations and protests about climate change are more and more prominent. But environmental concerns are not the sole preserve of activists. Consumers are increasingly interested in, and vocal about, minimising the impact on the environment of what they buy. They look to brands to affirm their values. Perceived transgressions can be punished swiftly. Better informed than ever, consumers want to know where products come from, what goes into them, how they are transported and what happens at the end of their useful life.  

We’ve seen some retailers, from high-end to high-street, taking a proactive stand. Fashion designer Stella McCartney, for example, uses no animal products at all in her clothes and accessories. Chanel has removed fur from its collections. In food retail, Iceland is getting rid of plastic packaging, and Costa Coffee has partnered with Barclays bank to create a reusable coffee cup with an embedded payment chip. Those are some of the visible commitments that retail brands are making to demonstrate their ethical and responsible credentials. But we’re also seeing greater interest in retailers looking across the end-to-end supply chain, from raw materials to product end of life, reuse and recycling. And technology is helping to deliver new insights into those product lifecycles.

One designer, Martine Jaalgaard, has sought to achieve this by using blockchain to trace not simply where goods come from, but what happens to them throughout their lives: Luxochain is a blockchain platform that traces what happens to goods after they have been sold. We’re also seeing developments by companies like LOOMIA that enable flexible circuity to be woven into fabrics, giving them the ability to collect and transmit data. In food retail, the origin of and transport of products is particularly important to demonstrate both ethical sourcing and health and safety. Companies like provenance.org are using blockchain to trace the origin, journey and impact of goods in a number of categories – and enabling consumers to track what happens to them.

The continued rise of eCommerce is creating ever-larger volumes of packaging for goods. We’re seeing innovation here as well, with retailers looking to reduce the amount of materials used to package up products, and increasingly working with packaging manufacturers to identify more efficient options. Delivery is also a clear area of focus, particularly in the ‘last mile’. While here the emphasis is largely on using AI and analytics to cut the cost of supporting direct to consumer deliveries, making these more efficient also has welcome environmental benefits.   

Product design and innovation are also now factoring in environmental considerations as an integral element rather than an afterthought. The focus on reducing plastic waste is driving action at an industry level to seek alternatives to plastics and encourage greater reuse and recycling, with organisations like the Ellen Macarthur Foundation seeking to enlist CPG businesses and retailers to help eliminate plastic waste.

For retailers, there’s also a fundamental challenge to business models that drive and encourage consumption – for example, fast fashion. In response, we’re starting to see some businesses explore new models such as renting, with businesses like Rent the Runway, enabling consumers to rent designer clothes rather than buy them outright. The next generation of loyalty schemes could be as much about rewarding shoppers’ environmentally-conscious behaviour as they are about incentivising purchases.

There are plenty of initiatives taking place by individual retailers. But do they really have an impact on shoppers’ behaviour? The evidence on this is as yet unclear. But what is clear is that consumers will assess a brand by the values it espouses and how it acts. And they have the information to hand to make those evaluations. Retailers need to make sure that they are building responsibility into their brand purpose and able to respond rapidly to events and publicity that may impact their brand reputation – because consumers are increasingly likely to do so – and vote with their wallets.   

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