Are retailers as ‘woke’ on sustainability as consumers?

Environmentally friendly city

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 12 months, you can’t have failed to notice that environmental issues have been front and centre for UK consumers. From David Attenborough’s war on plastic to teenage activist Greta Thunberg glaring at Donald Trump before giving him a good going over, the impact that humans have on the planet has arguably never been higher up the political and social agenda.

by Antony Begley

Society at large has never been so ‘woke’, to use the current parlance, when it comes to all things sustainability – but the big question for our industry is: just how ‘woke’ are retailers?

There are many facets to the sustainability debate, some social and some ethical, some practical and some commercial, yet the reality is that these factors will, and already are, beginning to converge. And the implications for the retail industry are enormous.

Take the latest Kantar research, which revealed just before Christmas that over three-quarters of UK grocery shoppers already switch, avoid or boycott brands because of their environmental policies.

That statistic alone should be enough to highlight the seismic shift that is going on in the streets and households of Scotland. The challenge for our sector is how we respond to it.

In simplistic terms there are two options open to us: muddle along and do what we can to ‘do our bit’ or actively, passionately take steps to lead the revolution from the front.

As local retailers with unique bonds to communities across Scotland it doesn’t require much of an imaginative leap to start to see that we almost have a responsibility to do sustainability bigger and better than our multiple or discounter cousins. If we genuinely do have our communities’ interests at heart then it’s incumbent on us to embrace sustainability in every practical way we can and to use our positions at the core of Scotland’s communities to inspire change among others.

reverse vending machine

It’s a simple fact of life too that younger shoppers – those famous ‘millennials’ and ‘generation Zs’ – are more woke than most. The Kantar study mentioned above also found younger consumers are more likely to switch or boycott brands if they view them as failing in their environmental responsibilities. Among 16-24-year-olds, an astonishing 87% said they have switched or would.

It’s not too much of a stretch to see how that same logic might begin to apply to retail outlets. If my local retailer doesn’t fit what I’m looking for and isn’t proactively following a sustainable model, I’ll shop elsewhere. With competition already so fierce and so many options now available to all shoppers, ignoring that warning is something you do at your peril.

Indeed, over 70% of consumers surveyed in the Kantar research agreed that the response from businesses to the environmental damage being caused to our planet is ‘too little, too late’.

And sustainability means different thing to different people, so it’s not quite as simple as installing a DRS machine and banning plastic bags. Respondents to the survey listed harsh working conditions, environmental pollution and the overuse of packaging among the many things they think carefully about before purchasing FMCG products.

Granted, the bulk of major manufacturers and suppliers have long since started on a journey to address their environmental challenges and many, including giants like Coca-Cola, have spent vast sums on communicating direct to consumers around the improvements they are making and on wider issues to simply raise awareness of these issues among shoppers.

But it remains very rare to see sustainability issues highlighted in convenience stores, or even on social media posts from stores.

There appears to be a disconnect somewhere. The majority of consumers of all ages are making it very clear that sustainability issues are important to them, yet retailers do not seem to have yet responded in many meaningful ways.

recycling collectors

Mark Chamberlain, Managing Director of Brand, Kantar UK comments: “Responsible living is being driven by cross-generational groups of ‘woke’ consumers that look towards inspiring brand heroes as change leaders. Governments and organisations are being forced to listen and respond to consumers’ demands for greater transparency as businesses strive to become more purposeful.

“The rise in responsibility and conscious consumerism is being influenced by a top-down approach as the consumer voice grows and pushes forward environmental and social agendas. Consumers now expect the FMCG industry to be driven by some direction other than simply making a profit. These values are fast becoming key assets in helping boost brand value whilst projecting a positive corporate image, and by doing so businesses can demonstrate a clear sense of purpose. This is what consumers are now looking for in today’s brands, and this preference will only intensify as the next generation comes of age. Purpose-led FMCG brands enjoy stronger growth and a deeper connection with consumers.”

Looked at from a certain angle, the challenge here is clear for retailers: the time has come to view sustainability not as a liability, something that is going to cost them money and create endless problems, but to view it instead as an asset.

Evolving a developed sustainability strategy and communicating it well to consumers can become a hugely valuable asset. It offers a potentially hugely influential USP that can be leveraged to grow footfall, sales and profits – and you get the satisfaction of knowing that doing good is good for business.

As Chamberlain implies, consumers are far more likely to engage emotionally with a retailer that is ‘purpose-led’, that contributes to the local community in a range of positive ways and, at the end of the day, is driven by more than simply making profit.

In other words, it’s the same mantra we’ve been repeating for decades: local retailers are about much more than simply selling Mars Bars and cans of Tennent’s. Unlike the major multiples, they don’t exist exclusively to make profit. They exist to provide valuable services to the communities they serve, many of those services non-commercial.

Sustainability could just be the biggest opportunity to land in the local retailing sector’s lap in a very long time – but only if we understand that opportunity and grasp it with both hands. Make sustainability a core plank of your business and communicate that to consumers and you could easily find that you have created a USP that very, very few of your competitors can even begin to try matching.

Kantar research: key trends

Plastic problem

Over half (53%) of consumers rank the overuse of plastic and other types of packaging as one of their top three environmental concerns. More women than men are concerned about it (58% v 49%), with 45-64-year-olds expressing most concern across all age groups (60%).

Buying decisions

82% of 25-34-year-olds say they sometimes or always check a brand’s commitment towards sustainability, the environment and saving the planet before making a purchase.

Taking responsibility

Almost 90% of consumers agree that brands need to take more responsibility for the waste their products create and the impact it has on the environment, with 50% ‘strongly agreeing’. This sentiment is strong across all age groups (>82%) and is highest among the 65+ cohort (92%).

Younger generations

Those most concerned with the issue of global warming are 16-24-year-olds, the youngest age group overall, with 65% ranking it as one of their top three concerns; of those, over one-third said it was their number one concern.

Boycotting brands

76% of consumers said they had boycotted buying certain clothes, had switched brands in the last 12 months or were thinking of doing so because of a brand’s environmental policies.