Sustainability challenges discussed by retail leaders

Retail Technology Show 2023: Industry leaders map out key sustainability challenges

At this stage in commerce’s environmental awakening there are no obvious answers to the key sustainability challenges the business world faces. But there are certainly lots of questions.

Many of the big questions were discussed in detail at this week’s Retail Technology Show, which brought its thousands of visitors a fascinating combination of insightful tech, sustainability, and general retail conference sessions to get the industry’s collective mind whirling.

On day two, on Thursday 27 April, leaders from Abel & Cole, eBay, and Pentland Brands were part of a panel discussion addressing sustainability challenges and opportunities.

Green Retail World was in the audience, and has picked out the main talking points around those sustainability challenges.

Are consumers willing to pay more for sustainable products and services?

Different views were expressed here. Sara Brennan, positive business director at Pentland Brands, said: “I don’t think consumers are necessary willing to pay an extra price all the time but they are willing to not choose your brand if you’re not offering sustainable options.”

She suggested retailers will have to look at absorbing some of the additional cost that comes with going greener, but argued that more loyalty from consumers could come through developing more sustainable actions.

“It’s our collective responsibility as retailers to really help consumers,” she added.

That idea of collaboration in the green agenda was reiterated by Stefanie Sahmel, head of sustainability at Abel & Cole.

She said those who first develop greener policies or actions deemed to be right for the environment might find themselves losing out commercially. It relates to the consumption conundrum she discussed in her Green Retail World interview prior to the show.

“We know beef is our highest carbon-emitting product,” she explained.

“If we were to say “cut back” that’s going to leave us vulnerable and possibly put us at a competitive disadvantage. So unless everyone acts together and decides this is the right thing to do we’re only shooting ourselves in the foot. That’s a really tough position to be in.”

To emphasise her point, she explained that for every kilo of beef Abel & Cole doesn’t sell it would have to sell 9 kilos of carrots to take the same cash.

“That’s the challenge really – how can you be a first mover and not disadvantage yourself?”

She did acknowledge, though, that she believes consumers “care a lot about the impact of the products they are buying”. Abel & Cole is a growing premium retailer and its core customers do keep coming back for the sustainably sourced and organic goods priced to reflect their strong provenance.

Greener retailing motivations

The panel highlighted some trends and learnings that might encourage both businesses and consumers to think more sustainably.

Roz Bridges, account development manager for home & garden at eBay, said sellers on the marketplace always have to select what condition their product is in.

“Anything not new we can track. It tends to be about 20% at the moment, although that differs per categorry, but it is increasing.”

During the Retail Technology Show there were multiple debates related to the economical and environmental impact of returns, but Bridges added: “We’re actually seeing fewer returns on refurbished stock than we do on brand new because the seller sets out the expectation from the start about the condition of the product.”

Brennan spoke about the incentives put in place at Pentland Brands.

She commented: “If we don’t hit our financial and ESG targets, no-one gets a bonus. This time next year I’ll either be a very popular person or unpopular person in the business but I think that has really helped galvanise collective employee action and responsibility.”

Brennan also acknowledged there is often a discrepancy between what consumers say they will do and what they actually do. If asked whether they will pay more for sustainable items, people will say “yes”.

“There is a reality gap with actual purchasing habits. Where brands and retailers can address the gap is help with the communication to consumers and let them know what the added value is.”

She cited the free repair service in place at her company’s Berghaus brand, which means consumers might have to pay a substantial upfront cost, but they can benefit from the longevity of the garment.

The best technology to aid sustainability work?

There were multiple tech companies on the exhibition floor of Retail Technology Show with a sustainability focus. Indeed, the winner of the Innovation Award was CircularX, which helps support retailers’ re-sale and repair offerings.

For Sahmel, the most valuable tech to aid the green agenda is that offered by the supply chain data companies. Brennan noted that supply chain mapping is the big project for Pentland Brands in the year ahead, too.

“We’re looking at how we can map our entire supply chain,” she noted.

“You can’t do that without tech. We’re excited about getting that visibility and then actually that visibility leads to carbon transparency.”

Sahmel paraphrased retail guru Mary Portas, who also spoke on Thursday at the show, saying society as a whole needs to adopt a different mentality to shopping if the retail industry is to significantly reduce its environmental impact.

“For every pound you spend, you’re voting for the world you want to live in – I think that’s very true,” she noted.

What do our readers think? Anyone have anything to add to the discussion? Feel free to comment on the story below or post on our LinkedIn page.

[Image credit: Green Retail World]

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