Technology is retail’s best bet to go greener in 2022

By James Dotchin, creative director at Outform

The CMA’s Green Claims Code is now in full operation, with the sole objective of clamping down on empty ethical pledges. And to be fair, retail is rolling up its sleeves, disrupting supply chains, store layouts and materials, and even revamping consumer messaging to make a difference.

But of course, there’s more to be done. To make a real difference, the whole ecosystem needs innovative technology to cut down on retail’s collective carbon footprint and to get shoppers on side.

A supply chain overhaul

Our industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are higher than all road traffic in the UK. Charity donations and tree planting from retailers are obviously a nod in the right direction, but are clearly counterproductive if £5bn worth of online returns still end up in landfill.

Fortunately, we’re starting to see some brands make an impact on the end-to-end supply chain.

Tommy Hilfiger recently announced the roll out of its 3D modelling tool to other luxury fashion brands under the PVH conglomerate. This shift to digital prototypes has the potential to reduce the waste generated by creating samples. Various prototypes in different sizes can be carved out, which aligns with the brand’s Make it Possible programme to be more sustainable.

Moreover, tech like this can help the industry move out of silos and work collaboratively to make the biggest impact it can on lowering emissions.

Provenance is also part of the story. Shoppers want to know more about the origins of what they’re buying, and retailers can use this to their advantage by identifying their own carbon-heavy gaps and setting targets for improvement.

One case in point is River Island, which partnered with supply chain transparency platform Segura to guarantee that clothes and accessories are sourced responsibly. It’s a brave step for a retailer often tarred with the same brush as fast-fashion outlets, and it shows its commitment to a more ethical supply chain.

The shop floor is a platform, let’s not forget

The shop floor has become the obvious way to demonstrate a brand’s green credentials – it’s the bit that shoppers see, so it’s a no-brainer.

From energy and material choices to shop floor services and repairs, retailers are starting to do a solid job of making their stores actually environmentally friendly. Boots’ Scan2Recycle service allows shoppers to use a QR-code to deposit packaging from beauty products, and in return they’ll receive loyalty points. On the other side of the pond, retailers like Walmart, which is part of the ‘’Beyond the Bag’’ initiative, have deployed app-led technology that allows shoppers to borrow and return reusable bags.

Technology can facilitate a circular economy in retail and, in Boots’ case, make it consumer-facing so that shoppers are gradually nudged into making more ethical choices – without excessive preaching.

A chance for tech to step up

Technology is clearly the red thread in retail’s green journey – and not always in ground-breaking, ‘new tech’ ways.

Plastics signs are still commonplace on the shop floor, but Outform’s recent research found that in categories like consumer electronics, interactive and digital screens are more influential in shoppers’ decision-making process.

And if retailers switch to electronic signs with longer lifespans, such as LED, they can use them repeatedly to showcase products, rather than using new plastic or other virgin materials for every launch. Moreover, materials from LED signs can be recycled so its entire lifespan can be greener than non-digital alternatives.

Yet this doesn’t mean tech is a panacea. It patently has its drawbacks – energy consumption being a key issue. Manchester City Council was criticised late last year for placing ad boards across the city that soaked up the same amount of electricity as three households a year. Adjusting the ambient settings so that screens could be adjusted accordingly would have gone some ways towards a fix, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the use of tech still needs to be environmentally responsible.

It’s exciting to see the effort that’s going into making the entire retail ecosystem more sustainable, and now is the time to make the most of that momentum. Sure, there are still gaps in the ecosystem. But by sourcing appropriate technology to minimise waste and seizing opportunities to go circular, retail can lower its collective carbon footprint – and change behaviour by encouraging consumers to do the same.

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