Director of Energy and Sustainability, Retail Industry Leaders Association
Take a moment to think about each of the big name stores you’ve visited in the past week while shopping for anything from groceries to clothes. You might be surprised to learn that all those companies probably have people at their headquarters working on making your purchases better for the planet. You might be even more surprised to hear that many of those same people openly talk to and learn from each other on a regular basis — even as major competitors.
How can that be true in such a competitive industry?
In the retail industry, implementing sustainability looks an awful lot like smart business practices and planning. Corporate sustainability is as much about reducing impact on the environment as it is about operating efficiently or protecting the people that make your products. Waste is often a byproduct of inefficiency, and global challenges, such as climate change, pose major risks to product manufacturing practices. These aren’t risks any one company can possibly avoid alone, so it’s more effective to collaborate. And when big companies change how they operate, the scale of the impact is huge — environmentally and geographically.
Retailers leverage peer communities led by industry trade associations to benchmark, share practices and create resources to benefit the entire retail industry — and even other industries. They discuss topics ranging from tactics for using less energy in stores to partnering on public awareness campaigns.
In addition to engaging with the Retail Industry Leaders Association’s Sustainability, Energy and Responsible Sourcing committees, here are just some of the many ways retailers collaborate on a regular basis.
1. Cut down on consumption
Consume less energy and produce less waste by working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR and WasteWise programs to learn about innovative technologies and current research.
2. Increase supply
Create and sell more natural products using initiatives such as the ones launched at the Beauty and Personal Care Products Sustainability Summit hosted by Walmart and Target.
3. Partner on clean energy
Procure cost-effective renewable energy by participating in dialogues with peers and electric utility companies, such as through the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance.
4. Treat workers better
Establishing the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety helped work toward improving labor conditions. Meanwhile, new software can be leveraged to track and drive real change.
5. Go circular
Find innovative ways to transition to a circular economy — a system that wastes no materials — by partnering with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and The Sustainability Consortium on circular economy resources and guidance.
6. Combat climate change
Publically commit to carbon reduction or increased renewable energy use goals. Examples of such commitments include the 2015 White House American Business Act on Climate Pledge and the RE100 initiative.
7. Reach across sectors
The retail industry can team up with other sectors around sustainability issues of mutual interest. For the Corporate Clean Energy Procurement Index, retail partnered with the technology industry to compare state energy policies, as both sectors are working to increase renewable energy market choices. For the Landlord-Tenant Energy Partnership, retailers are working with their landlords to improve sustainable operations in shopping centers.
These collaborative industry groups and initiatives exist because there’s much more work that can be done collectively than individually.
So what is your role as a shopper?
At the end of the day, a retail company can’t exist without its customers, so vote with your wallet. Telling companies what they do right — and the values that are important to you — is invaluable feedback. When retail customers care about sustainability, it becomes a critical business value driver. Check out your favorite store’s website, annual sustainability reports and public commitments to learn what they are up to — it’s probably more than you think. And if they’re not doing enough, contact them to tell them about the issues you care about.
Inevitably, many people will, understandably and out of necessity, be drawn to the lowest priced products. But, if you want environmentally-friendly products to become cheaper and companies to be good stewards of our planet, opt for those products when you can and show the companies you shop with that you keep coming back when you like what you see.
Erin Hiatt, Director of Energy and Sustainability, Retail Industry Leaders Association, [email protected]