Sustainability Consumerism: How retailers are on the front line

We live in febrile times, and for once we are not talking about Brexit. Within the last year we have seen a global backlash against disposable plastics and mounting concern over climate change. Anxiety about deforestation, and especially the uncontrolled spread of industrial scale farming and ranching, also made the front pages this summer thanks to multiple fires raging through Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

Sustainability is the next big thing, and retailers are on its front line. The newly elevated ideals of consumers are played out in millions of buying decisions on the high street and between brands. Here the rubber of consumer conscience hits the concrete of economic reality. How much will consumers pay to live up to their ethical positions?

Campaigning groups exploit this tension to push forward their own agendas. Acting as unappointed (but largely tolerated) proxies for consumers, groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam and Which? are skilled at playing retailers and brands off each other to get attention for their concerns and make large companies pass them down their supply chains.

This way, standards are raised for all consumers and the shopper never needs to tax their consciences. Moreover, it is a no-brainer for an NGO that trying to persuade a hundred palm oil producers in Malaysia to stop burning forest is a lot harder, and likely fruitless, than shaming a dozen major European retailers to boycott Malaysian palm oil until the producers stop setting the fires.

On that point, what is the next palm oil? Absolutely at the top of the list is plastics. This still has some way to go. If you hoped ending plastic straws or replacing plastic bags with paper was sufficient to placate shoppers and put the shine back into your eco credentials, you are in for a surprise.

Campaigners are seeking a wholesale rethinking of packaging. They not only want big reductions in virgin plastic use, they also want business to move away from single use packaging of any kind.

In-store self-fill lines in the dry goods sections of supermarkets are just the beginning. Firms with large plastic footprints like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Unilever and PepsiCo are being pressed hard to commit to fundamental reforms of how they do business.

Sainsbury’s is beginning to get some praise from campaigners for its efforts in this direction, but this has been set against a lot of criticism only relatively recently. Changes like these could take up to a decade to work through to the shelf, but if the activists succeed (and the public doesn’t lose patience with the increased inconvenience), some types of retailing, not just food but also personal and home care, will start to look very different.

Climate change and the Amazon fires have pushed questions about modern agriculture up the agenda, too. Activists have long questioned the dependency of European livestock production on imported grain from Latin America, the main driver for Amazonian forest loss. This is putting pressure on retailers in two ways.

First, they are being called to account for, and mitigate, the climate and biodiversity ‘footprint’ of their meat, poultry and dairy. This is putting retailers under a challenge with global supply chains. Second, they need to meet growing demand for non-meat food choices with the rise of ‘green vegetarianism’ and veganism. Green vegetarianism is spurred by environmental concerns over eating meat as opposed to traditional health or ethical reasons.

This is great news for meat substitute innovators like Impossible Burger, and actively encouraged by the fast food and informal dining businesses which no longer try to fob off vegetarian and vegan customers with a salad and a side of cheese and potato. Retailers are providing a bit slower to move, although recently Tesco was praised by the Eating Better Alliance for widening its range of plant-based options.

Even the fashion sector is beginning to feel the effects of pressure from vegan consumers and activists, over animal-sourced textiles. Many assumed that leather would enjoy a new lease of life with the backlash against plastic, but in reality, many of the people who are hostile to plastic are also hostile to leather, for similar reasons. For them, the new non-plastic leather alternatives and rival fabrics like cotton and bamboo may meet their needs.

Designers like Stella McCartney are already talking about vegan fashion. This July, H&M won plaudits from the animal rights group PETA in France for pioneering non-animal/non-plastic fashion. It can’t be long until we see aisles dedicated to this new ethical choice in our stores.

The convergence of an Amazon on fire, climate protests, and plastic guilt, has pushed sustainability to the front of the consumer’s mind. This cannot be written off as a fad – certainly not if activist groups continue to press the public’s buttons and nag businesses to take more meaningful action.

See it more as an opportunity to re-engage with the consumer, not as a buying machine, but as a fellow passenger on Planet Earth, where both you and your shoppers are trying to meet their practical needs in an ethical and environmentally mindful way.

Robert Blood, founder and managing director of Sigwatch

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