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From greenwashing to true sustainability (I/II): addressing retail sustainability issues head-on

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By Jef Teugels, Matthias Braun

· 14 min read

This is part one of a two-part series on greenwashing in retail businesses. You can read part two here.


Sustainability is a watchword in all fields of business, but the retail sector has its own set of difficulties in this area. Even though the retail industry has substantial environmental and social implications, several retailers have made achievements in promoting sustainability in recent years. Additionally, there is rising worry about greenwashing, in which businesses overstate or misrepresent their sustainability initiatives to win over customers. This can muddy the waters and damage relationships between companies and their customers.

Therefore, stores must take sustainability head-on, committing to improvements that will help their bottom line and the planet. This article will discuss the sustainability issues that stores face and offer suggestions for how these stores might improve their future sustainability. We'll discuss how avoiding greenwashing is crucial and why transparency and accountability are essential in sustainability reporting. After reading this essay, you'll understand the steps stores may take to promote sustainability and sidestep the greenwashing trap.

Why is sustainability crucial for retailers?

The fact that consumers, regulators, and other stakeholders now require businesses to be sustainable makes a case for why sustainability is so important for retailers. It's no secret that today's consumers, especially the younger ones, are willing to pay a premium for ethical and environmentally friendly goods and services. Climate change, deforestation, and workers' rights are just a few examples of the environmental and social issues that have gained public attention and can hurt a business's brand and bottom line.

Retailers may set themselves apart from the competition, get new customers interested in ethical and environmentally friendly goods and services, and secure their company's long-term success by placing a premium on sustainability. Saving money on utilities and trash removal is just one example of how efficiency gains from becoming green can help businesses save money. Furthermore, sustainability can assist stores in reducing long-term risks and making sure their operations continue to thrive in an ever-evolving marketplace.

In addition, many stores understand that sustainability is critical to their continued profitability and legitimacy in the marketplace. Several large-scale merchants, for instance, have publicly pledged to lessen their adverse effects on the environment and boost their sustainability performance, suggesting a trend toward a greener business strategy.

In conclusion, sustainability is essential for retailers because it may help them stand out from competitors, save money, reduce risks over time, and satisfy consumers and other stakeholders. Retailers may create a more long-lasting and lucrative enterprise by emphasizing environmental and social responsibility.

A brief discussion of the sustainability challenges facing retailers, including greenwashing

Depending on the goods they offer, the length of their supply chain, and the locations where they do business, retailers might need help with various sustainability difficulties. There are several essential sustainability issues that merchants must address.

Retailers contribute to greenhouse gas generation through their supply chains, transportation, and operational processes. Using renewable energy, streamlining logistics, and boosting store-level energy efficiency are all critical measures they may take to lessen their environmental impact.

Waste management: Retailers produce copious amounts of trash, such as empty packaging, discarded food, and unsold merchandise. They need to cut down on trash and ramp up recycling and reusing efforts.

By fostering sustainable and ethical sourcing, retailers can rest assured that their products are obtained in a manner that does not harm the environment or violate the rights of workers or other people.

To prevent issues like child labor and human rights violation, retailers must confirm that their suppliers adhere to the same high standards of social responsibility and environmental responsibility that they uphold.

Retailers may influence consumer behavior toward sustainability by emphasizing the value of sustainable products and behaviors like recycling and limiting the usage of single-use plastics.

Retailers face a big problem from greenwashing, which occurs when businesses exaggerate or misrepresent their sustainability initiatives to win over customers. Confusion and skepticism among consumers about sustainability claims are possible outcomes of greenwashing, which damages credibility and trust. Greenwashing can be avoided if stores are honest and forthright in their sustainability reporting, put money into third-party certifications, and consult with stakeholders to ensure their efforts are helping.

Sustainability challenges facing retailers

Overview of the environmental and social impacts of the retail sector

There are widespread negative ecological and social repercussions across the retail industry's supply chain and operations. Some of the most significant results are as follows:

Effects on the environment

The retail industry is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions due to its heavy reliance on building energy, transportation, logistics, and manufacturing products and packaging materials.

Retail businesses produce a high volume of trash, including perishable food, packaging discards, and unsold merchandise.

Loss of biodiversity and increased greenhouse gas emissions are just two of the many adverse environmental effects of producing agricultural commodities like palm oil, soy, and beef, often used in retail products.

In areas where water is already scarce, producing goods and materials in retail products might exacerbate the problem.

Labor standards

Labor abuses in retail supply chains, such as child labor, forced labor, and bad working conditions, are pervasive and can have significant societal effects.

Rights of the people Human rights violations related to retail goods include the theft of land, the forced relocation of indigenous peoples, and armed conflicts over scarce materials.

Obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer are just a few health problems linked to consuming certain retail products, including fast food, sugary drinks, and cigarettes.

Influence on the economy

The retail sector can substantially impact the economy, including the displacement of local businesses, the loss of traditional livelihoods, and the reliance on low-wage jobs.

In sum, the retail sector has substantial environmental and social implications that necessitate immediate attention and action by merchants to ensure a sustainable future.

Reducing carbon footprint and waste generation, increasing supply chain transparency and labor standards, and encouraging sustainable consumer behavior are some sustainability concerns facing retailers today

The complexity of the retail sector makes it challenging to handle the many sustainability difficulties retailers face. Specific sustainability issues that merchants must address are discussed in depth below.

Reducing carbon footprint

Greenhouse gas emissions are a significant problem for the retail industry because of the high energy levels used in store operations, particularly for heating and cooling, transportation, and manufacturing products and their packaging. Businesses in the retail sector need to take measures to lessen their impact on the environment, such as:

  • Energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling systems, and equipment can decrease a building's overall demand for electricity, lowering the building's environmental impact.
  • By streamlining their operations, stores can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere due to transporting goods. You can reduce the number of trips needed by making deliveries in bulk or with electric or hybrid cars.
  • Energy-efficient equipment, such as refrigeration units, and techniques, such as intelligent lighting systems and controls, can help retailers reduce their energy use and save money.

Waste generation

Retail is notorious for waste production rates, particularly in packaging materials, perishable food items, and unsold stock. There needs to be more recycling and reusing on the part of retailers. Retailers can adopt a variety of strategies, including:

  • By embracing circular economy ideas, stores may help cut down on trash and boost recycling and reusing efforts. Closed-loop supply chain systems eliminating single-use plastics are two steps in this direction.
  • Donating unsold merchandise is an excellent way for stores to reduce waste while assisting those in need.
  • Retailers can implement strategies for reducing packages, such as using recycled materials or reusable packaging.

Improving supply chain transparency and labor standards

  • Companies selling consumer goods are responsible for guaranteeing that those goods are obtained in a manner that does not harm the environment or violate the rights of workers or other people. Retailers can adopt a variety of strategies, including:
  • By conducting supply chain audits, stores ensure their vendors adhere to the sustainability and ethical criteria, such as not using child labor or violating workers' rights.
  • Retailers might establish supplier codes of conduct to outline their vendors' environmental and social expectations.
  • Retailers may assist their suppliers in becoming more sustainable and ethical by investing in supplier capacity building.

Encouraging sustainable consumer behavior

Sustainable product and practice promotion is a power retailer tool to shape customer behavior. This includes providing eco-friendly product options, encouraging recycling, and decreasing the usage of single-use plastics. Retailers can adopt a variety of strategies, including:

  • Retailers may inspire customers to make more sustainable purchases by highlighting eco-friendly products like energy-efficient appliances and sustainable clothes.
  • Stores can help promote environmentally responsible practices by providing customers with eco-friendly alternatives to standard products, such as reusable shopping bags instead of throwaway plastic ones.
  • Retailers can be essential in informing customers about their purchases' social and environmental effects, such as food waste costs and eco-friendly textiles' advantages.

Addressing greenwashing

  • Retailers face a big problem from greenwashing, which occurs when businesses exaggerate or misrepresent their sustainability initiatives to win over customers. Greenwashing can be avoided if stores are honest and forthright in their sustainability reporting, put money into third-party certifications, and consult with stakeholders to ensure their efforts are helping.

Retailers face several sustainability issues, all of which need to be addressed using a comprehensive strategy. Carbon footprint and waste reduction, supply chain transparency and labor standards improvement, sustainable consumer behavior promotion, and greenwashing are all responsibilities of the retail industry. If stores follow these guidelines, they will contribute to a more environmentally and socially responsible retail industry.

Overcoming sustainability challenges in retail

Why retailers need to adopt a genuine commitment to sustainability to overcome challenges

To address sustainability issues, retailers must demonstrate a genuine commitment to sustainability; with this commitment, sustainability efforts will likely be successful, meaningful, and significant. Here are a few examples of why stores should make sustainability a priority:

  1. Creating lasting alteration: to commit to sustainability, one must go beyond lip service or PR gimmicks. It entails engaging in concrete, quantifiable sustainability objectives and allocating the necessary means to realize them. Greenhouse gas emissions, supply chain transparency, worker rights, and trash output can all benefit from this strategy.
  2. Responding to the needs of the stakeholders: consumers, workers, investors, and government agencies all have a vested interest in seeing sustainable practices implemented by retailers, and they are becoming more and more critical of sustainability claims. With a sincere dedication to sustainability, stores can keep their "social license to operate" and so satisfy these customers' expectations.
  3. To build confidence and reliability: sustainability goes beyond minimizing expenses and adhering to regulations. Customers and other interested parties highly expect businesses to be open, accountable, and honest in their approach to sustainability. Trust and credibility in a company's long-term viability may be cultivated by a true dedication to sustainability, which can boost sales, differentiate the company's brand, and ultimately ensure the company's survival.
  4. Managing the risks of the future: retailers face serious long-term risks from sustainability issues, including global warming, resource depletion, and social inequity if nothing is done about them. Retailers can lessen their exposure to these dangers and strengthen their long-term viability by committing to sustainability.
  5. Recruiting and retaining: the best and brightest employees increasingly depend on a company's commitment to environmental responsibility. By committing to sustainability, the retail industry can improve its ability to recruit and retain top talent and boost employee engagement and happiness.

In sum, retailers must demonstrate genuine dedication to the cause if they are serious about addressing environmental issues. Top talent can be attracted and retained, long-term risks can be reduced, and change can occur if these conditions are met. If business owners prioritize protecting the environment and helping underprivileged people, they can build a thriving company that helps people and the earth for the long haul.

Examples of successful sustainability initiatives by retailers, including case studies

Here are some examples of sustainability initiatives by retailers, along with brief case studies:

Walmart's Sustainability Index

Walmart developed the Sustainability Index to assess their products’ adverse effects on the natural and human communities. Using this index, Walmart may evaluate the environmental impact of its products across its entire supply chain, from raw materials to final disposal. The corporation announced in 2019 that it had successfully reduced supply chain emissions by 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.

IKEA's circular business model

IKEA has adopted a circular business model to maximize resource utilization and minimize waste. Used IKEA furniture can be sold back to the firm through a buy-back scheme, and the company will then resell the items. IKEA claimed in 2020 that 60% of the materials used in its products were either renewable or recycled.

Patagonia's Worn Wear Program

The Worn Wear program is an initiative by Patagonia to get customers to fix and reuse their gear instead of buying brand-new items. As of January 2019, Patagonia said that 100,000 items had been repaired through the program, preventing them from being thrown away. Waste has been reduced, and sustainable consumer practices have been encouraged thanks to the initiative.

Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan

Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan is a comprehensive sustainability program focusing on reducing the company's environmental impact, improving livelihoods, and promoting sustainable consumer behavior. The initiative has goals including improving the usage of sustainably sourced materials and decreasing the environmental effect of Unilever's products. Unilever stated in 2020 that it has successfully met its objective of obtaining all of its palm oil from sustainable sources.

Levi's Water<Less Program

The Water<Less initiative was developed by Levi Strauss & Co. to help reduce the amount of water used in the company's production operations. The use of ozone devices to replace the water in the finishing process is only one example of the program's creative approaches to lowering water consumption. Since the program's launch, Levi's estimates that over 3 billion liters of water will have been saved by 2020.

These illustrations demonstrate that merchants may implement effective sustainability strategies that benefit the environment and their bottom line. These initiatives require a genuine commitment to sustainability and a willingness to invest in the resources needed to achieve sustainability goals.

The sources for the case studies mentioned above are:

  • Walmart's Sustainability Index: Walmart Corporate Website:
  • IKEA's Circular Business Model: IKEA Corporate Website:
  • Patagonia's Worn Wear Program: Patagonia Corporate Website:
  • Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan: Unilever Corporate Website:
  • Levi's Water<Less Program: Levi's Corporate Website:

Each source provides more information about the sustainability initiative, including its goals, impact, and results.

How retailers can prioritize sustainability, such as setting clear sustainability goals, investing incertifications, and being transparent in sustainability reporting

Setting concrete sustainability targets, investing in certifications, and being honest in sustainability reporting are all ways in which retailers may emphasize sustainability. An in-depth analysis of various methods is provided below.

Setting clear sustainability goals

To succeed in their sustainability efforts, retailers must first establish specific targets. To be effective, these targets must be well-defined, quantifiable, and time-bound; for example, aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 or increase the usage of sustainable materials in goods by 25% by 2025. The ability to prioritize sustainability, allocate resources, and track progress is greatly enhanced when businesses have explicit sustainability goals. It also aids in communicating the company's commitments and priorities in sustainability to its stakeholder base.

Investing in certifications

By spending money on independent certifications, stores can show customers they care about environmental protection. Trust and credibility among stakeholders can be boosted with the help of certifications, which offer third-party verification of sustainability claims. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies responsibly sourced wood and paper, while Fair Trade certifies goods were obtained socially and environmentally responsible. Certifications are a great way for stores to differentiate themselves from rivals while demonstrating their commitment to upholding ethical and environmental standards.

Being transparent in sustainability reporting

To gain the trust and respect of their stakeholders, stores should be forthright in their sustainability reporting. Sharing information regarding the effects of products and supply chains on sustainability is also part of being open and honest about sustainability efforts and progress. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) are two sustainability reporting systems that can help retailers provide accurate and transparent information. Retailers may boost brand loyalty and stand out by being forthright in their sustainability reporting, fostering trust among consumers, investors, and other stakeholders.

Reporting and vigilance

Retailers who want to report on their sustainability performance should use sustainability reporting systems, but they should do so with an appropriate dosage of skepticism. Retailers must exercise caution when choosing sustainability reporting tools because using the wrong technology might lead to incorrect reporting and even greenwashing.

Integrating sustainability into business strategy

To make sustainability an integral component of their operations, retailers should include it in their company plan. Sustainability must be considered at every stage of the decision-making process, from initial brainstorming to final production. Sustainable behavior and performance can be encouraged through sustainability measures and incentives, which retailers can employ. Retailers may prioritize sustainability at all company levels and ensure it's aligned with their aims and objectives by incorporating sustainability into business strategy.

Prioritizing sustainability requires a comprehensive approach that includes, but is not limited to, setting quantifiable sustainability targets, funding certifications, providing transparent sustainability reporting, and integrating sustainability into overall business strategy. In this approach, businesses can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, win over critical constituencies, and pave the path for a more moral and environmentally responsible future.​

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Jef Teugels designs planet- and people-first solutions and is a post-graduate researcher. He explores the energy created by the friction between customer behavior, organizational readiness, and exponential technologies. Born at 319.62 ppm, he’s a father and a grandfather trying to develop some intergenerational value.

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Matthias Braun is Principal at rpc - The Retail Performance Company GmbH. He is a pioneer in the investigation, development and implementation of digital and sustainable strategies and innovations in retail. In doing so, he places a particular focus on the customer experience, as he believes that only the most customer-centric organizations will survive in the fierce competition for customers.

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