Sustainability in Retail: Creating a Green Brand Identity Both Online and Offline

There’s a lot of discussion around green brands, especially in the retail industry. And while branding helps spread the message, building a sustainable, green brand goes beyond marketing. 

Brand managers and marketers cannot ‘’create’’ a green brand. An entire team, with help from the industry, can however build greener businesses.

Because a truly authentic brand identity should permeate every part of the business, all the way to the supply chain. 

There’s a growing need for strict boundaries and realistic strategies in achieving sustainability. In this article, we’ll explore this topic for both online and offline retail brands. Starting from a clear definition, we’ll work our way through important elements to consider, up to strategies that every brand could–or even should–start implementing, if we want to make the entire industry more sustainable.

What does sustainability in retail mean?

Sustainability in retail is a hot topic. It’s about so much more than recyclable materials or ethically sourced materials. It’s about how we treat our planet, and the people on it. 

Simply put, sustainability is about fulfilling our needs today without making it tough for future generations to meet their needs. It’s about being smart with our resources. 

In retail, this idea grows bigger. It’s about where products come from, how they are sold, and encouraging buyers to make choices that are good for the planet.

Unpacking the issue

Consumers want more sustainable products and practices, but have been deceived for decades. 

Greenwashing has been a serious issue. 59% of sustainability claims made by European and UK fashion brands turn out to be misleading.

There are many examples of retailers claiming to be more green than they really are, but let’s look at H&M. Over the past few years, they’ve launched a couple of sustainable initiatives, such as conscious collections made of more sustainable materials and the option to bring your old clothes to the store, so they can be recycled. 

That all sounds good, on the surface. But…

A June 2021 report, “Synthetic Anonymous”, revealed that H&M’s conscious line has more harmful synthetic materials than its main line. And although H&M claims 90% of its recycled polyester is from single-use plastic bottles, this solution is flawed. Once turned into clothes, these plastics exit the circular recycling loop, ending up in landfills, incinerated, or littered, contributing to environmental harm and the pervasive issue of microplastics.

And it’s not just H&M. In fact, when looking at which UK fashion brands seem to be most engaged with sustainable practices, are the fast fashion brands we all know so well. 

Why are they not as effective then? According to Retail Insight Network, it turns out that the ‘’reductions made in the environmental impact per tonne of clothes in recent years have been offset by a continued growth in sales.’’

So what we’re really needing from retail, is a new way of business–where they produce less, while maintaining profit. 

Consumers understand more and more about greenwashing

Few consumers are still genuinely seeking out so-called sustainable collections, after almost all brands made headlines about how it’s less sustainable than advertised. It’s making us sceptical about what really works, and it poses a risk when building a ‘’green brand’’. Because brand authenticity is connected to brand trust, you want to avoid misleading consumers. 

The online vs offline debate

Retailers are trying to find that sweet spot for sustainability when balancing online and offline sales, but what really matters here?

The debate amongst consumers often sounds like this: ‘’Do we want people to drive to stores, or do we want delivery services to drive to people.’’ Enter a world of assumptions and ‘facts’.

The answer isn’t as black and white as people want it to be. It does pose another question: how can we make people think more about what they need to buy, and want to buy?

The conversation about sustainability shouldn’t start at checkout or delivery–it should start when consumers are considering what they want to buy. 

Strategies towards building a green brand identity

Integrating sustainability into brand strategy starts at looking at:

  • Ways to change the business model;
  • the sources and resources used;
  • what practices should be cut out;
  • and how to work together with consumers.

Let’s look at how online and offline retailers can find that strategy that fits them and actually benefits the environment when looking at the entire company–not just when zooming in on a single campaign or collection.

Moving beyond green collections to genuine sustainability.

It’s crucial to emphasise the importance of reducing rather than adding to offset non-sustainable practices.

Adding in ‘green’ collections to offset non-sustainable practices doesn’t work. Don’t focus on what you are launching and adding. First, find what you can cut out and be open about that as a brand. 

Innovative and sustainable strategies to combine

As we mentioned earlier, true sustainability isn’t done by adding one green activity to the list of things your business does. Here are some ways that can be combined to truly make an impact.

1. Limited edition collections aka mindful production

Limited editions as a new standard will create a much-needed narrative about mindful production and shopping. Reducing the volume of production can help retailers cut down on waste and reduce their carbon footprint. Combining this with sourcing sustainable and ethical materials will lead to a shift from mass production to an economy in which every piece is valued.

If you do end up with excessive inventory, find ways to get rid of it without turning to a landfill. Read more about maximising profits with effective management of excess inventory.

2. Digitalisation and technology 

Tech will play a big part in sustainability. Technology can be leveraged for inventory management, smart logistics, and data analytics can drive sustainability across retail sectors. 

Digitalisation and technology can be used in the realms of retail fleet management too. A case in point is the application of battery intelligence analytics. Modern retail operations, especially those employing electric or hybrid fleet vehicles, could significantly benefit from this technology. 

By harnessing battery intelligence analytics, companies can delve deep into the performance metrics of their fleet’s batteries, unveiling data-driven insights to enhance battery longevity and reliability.

For example, battery intelligence analytics can provide real-time data on each battery’s state of charge, health, and overall performance. This data is instrumental in foreseeing potential issues and undertaking timely maintenance, thereby avoiding premature battery replacements. The result is a remarkable increase in battery life, with companies being able to extend the battery life of their fleets by up to 30%. 

3. Rental services

It’s crucial to rethink inventory management to make it more sustainable. The rental revolution is apparent in fashion already, but it makes sense to rent all kinds of products. Does every household really need to own a drill all year round? Probably not. With easy-access rentals (perhaps even in the stores that used to only sell the products) retailers can significantly reduce production, and still meet demand. These services also extend the life of products, especially for fashion items.

4. (Online) Second-hand marketplaces

In line with rental services, it’s also time we start truly embracing the pre-loved. The stigma around second-hand items is dissolving as both online and offline retailers are making it easier to buy used items. From reconditioned phones to second-hand shoes there are options for all sectors to contribute to the circular economy.

5. Online return limitations

It’s about time the return limits of 100 days are over. People buy products they don’t need or just want to try on, knowing they’ll be sent back. Not only does this bloat up the perceived demand for products leading to unnecessary high production, it also increases waste–and the number of trips delivery vans need to make. 

6. Streamlining operations

For instance, in managing retail fleet operations, utilising tools like Fleetio’s maintenance schedule template can significantly help in keeping the operations streamlined and sustainable. This template assists in ensuring that the vehicles are well-maintained, thereby reducing unnecessary emissions and fostering fuel efficiency. It’s a small yet potent example of how employing the right tools can contribute to a retailer’s sustainable practices.

7. Engaging consumers in recycling efforts

Recycling is the one thing everyone can contribute to. Retailers can play a pivotal role in making recycling more convenient and common for shoppers. They could set up easy-to-access recycling stations or offer benefits for returning old and used products.

8. Sourcing sustainable and ethical materials–and sticking to them

Like we mentioned earlier–simply adding a line with sustainable materials to a catalogue does not offset the damage done by other materials that a retailer might use. The choice of materials is fundamental in the sustainability discourse, and retailers will need to shift to only ethical materials to truly make a change. 

9. Zero-waste packaging

It’s not just the products–the packages they come in matter just as much in the battle for sustainability. The elimination or reduction of packaging waste is a strategy that’s already embraced across various retail sectors, but more can be done. Using reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging materials–or even little to none packaging at all–can drastically mitigate waste.

10. Supply chain transparency

Often, consumers simply don’t know what to believe about the products they buy, or they are completely in the dark. Supply chain transparency means providing them with clear and honest information about the sourcing, production and distribution processes that have been used to get a product to the consumer. This will also aid in consumers making more mindful choices on what to buy.

The responsibility in retail is for both retailers and consumers 

Retailers and consumers share the responsibility of promoting sustainability in the retail industry. A key step is education.

Retailers can offer insights on the environmental impact of purr=chases, possible through in-sore workshops or online content. It will take some getting used to for consumers, getting hard facts about the impacts of their buying choices, but it’s necessary.

Additionally, retailers can create platforms for customers to voice their opinions on sustainability initiatives, which in turn could provide valuable feedback for the retailer. 

On the other side, consumers buying behaviour significantly impacts the success of sustainability initiatives. Retailers can foster thoughtful purchasing by providing eco-friendly alternatives, and give information on how long a product should last–and what to do at the end of its life cycle.

This two-way engagement not only promotes sustainable shopping, but also helps in building a green brand identity for retailers. 

How will your retail business go green?

In conclusion, creating a green brand identity in retail–whether offline or online–is about smart choices, both big and small. From rethinking how we manage resources to educating customers on sustainable shopping, every step counts. Which step are you taking next?

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