Retail Sustainability Value Chain Fraught With Disconnects

Sustainability has been a hot topic for both the retail and for consumers in recent years, but new research shows there is a disconnect between consumer interest and education in regard to greener industry practices.

According to data from Coupon Follow’s 2021 Sustainability Report, one of the biggest areas of confusion for shoppers is the impact of e-commerce purchases, compared to those made in-store. Coupon Follow found that 79 percent of consumers have increased their e-commerce activity in the last year, in a survey of more than 1,300 consumers. But over half of respondents believed that having these purchases shipped directly to their home had the same environmental impact of buying the item in-store; 22 percent believed e-commerce was better.

“It can be daunting to understand the true connection between our behavior and environmental impact,” said James Chin Moody, cofounder and chief executive officer of sustainable shipping platform Sendle. “People want to make a difference, but aren’t always aware of the best way to do it. We believe the e-commerce industry has a bigger job to do, in terms of educating people on the impact of our activities — everything from the carbon emissions released during shipping, to underutilized space in delivery trucks and packaging waste.”

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Restricted store hours have pushed shoppers toward online ordering, but the convenience of home delivery is also a draw — especially when shipping is free. Yet these purchases can add additional carbon footprint to already-damaging product journeys. Beginning at the original material selection and then throughout the manufacturing process, fashion products can produce significant waste and environmental damage, unless brands take steps to safeguard against this.

Critically, Coupon Follow found that almost all consumers (92 percent) would choose to shop more sustainably if there was a monetary incentive or discount; the interest is there. But currently, sustainable products are nearly always priced higher than their less eco-friendly counterparts. This is in part due to the smaller quantities used across the industry and the newness of the technologies involved.

“Materials development teams and sourcing teams often explore both options, but in many cases the virgin synthetic or less sustainable option is approved in order to meet costing targets,” said Kara Burke, senior marketing manager for the Americas at materials company Lenzing. “Once the industry as a whole sources sustainable materials as the rule, as opposed to it being the exception, then we will be able to benefit from economies of scale.”

Both Sendle and Lenzing believe the industry needs to do it alongside government action, to increase the availability and education around these sustainable options. By choosing to partner with a third-party solution that prioritizes eco-friendly service, brands can optimize their existing supply chains. Clear supply chain visibility is also critical, in order to identify where the biggest sources of waste are so that new measures can be implemented.

Once a brand has made these commitments, it doesn’t just benefit from the reduced environmental impact; these initiatives can then be shared with consumers, for improved transparency and consumer trust. Coupon Follow found that 68 percent of respondents would be likely or very likely to change their shopping habits in order to reduce their impact on climate change — they just need to know how.

“Consumers can be more confident when a company discloses its supply chain down to the raw materials: It’s a good sign that they have visited their suppliers and audited them for social and environmental conditions,” said Leonardo Bonanni, founder and CEO of supply chain platform Sourcemap.

Some companies are already doing a good job of this; Lenzing’s Burke highlighted Allbird’s inclusion of a carbon footprint rating for each of its products, while The RealReal has a “TRR Sustainability Calculator” that displays the water and carbon savings by shopping products on their platform. A number of footwear brands, from Nike to Timberland, have outlined specific material goals as well.

“Sustainable choices don’t need to cost more,” said Chin Moody. “When you build sustainability initiatives into your business at the deepest level, you’re taking a step that not only benefits the environment, but also benefits your business, making it more resilient over the long term.”

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