5 things independent retailers can do in the light of the IPCC report

Rebecca says: I recently had a look through the IPCC report, which is sobering for us all. It’s a stark reminder that it is our collective responsibility to make changes to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic weather events, sea level changes and reduced air quality. Retailers – particularly those that buy / sell internationally – need to consider the environmental impact of their strategic decisions from the highest level, and be prepared for increasing scrutiny from both investors and customers around their operations. 

And of course, customers can, and should, choose with their wallets when they are making their purchasing decisions. 

Here are five things independent retailers can do to improve their environmental impact:

1. Improving Retail Packaging 

It’s happened to all of us - we order a rather small product only for it to come in a huge parcel with layers and layers of packaging, most not even recyclable. I believe there is no longer any excuse for this behaviour, and it is relatively easy to change compared to some longer-term initiatives. 

Of course, recyclable packaging may be more expensive to buy or store, and a recent McKinsey report shows the steps a retailer or brand will need to take to work through how they can make their packaging options more sustainable.

I do believe that there is an opportunity for retailers that are embracing sustainability to use this packaging as part of their storytelling, telling customers about the changes they have made. For example, when substituting biodegradable corn pellets for plastic pellets, a retailer could invite customers to test for themselves what happens when they put the pellet into water, reinforcing for customers their environmental credentials with a memorable experience.

2. Recycle, Reuse, Reduce 

I think we’re still at an early stage of retailer-led initiatives entering the consumer mainstream. It is not actually new to see brands offering recycling – M&S and Oxfam’s partnership has been going since 2008, and they claim to have collected over 35m items during this time – so it is great to see further big retailers such as the Co-Op offering this kind of service. 

It is encouraging that these brands are offering to recycle products or packaging bought from other retailers too; the key is to make these initiatives as easy as possible for consumers so that they can do their recycling in a one-stop trip.

As an industry we need to be prepared to be radical in terms of how we reuse and recycle. The resale and rental markets are also growing rapidly – albeit from a small base – and represent an opportunity for incumbent retailers to work in partnership with startups in this area, such as the MyWardrobe pop up at Harvey Nichols and the recent Resellfridges initiative. Even small retailers or brands can consider how they can partner with other organisations to develop sustainable initiatives, such as The Little Loop’s clothing innovative clothing rental partnerships with the likes of Frugi and Boden. 

Most of these initiatives remain aimed at the mid to premium segments of the market, and often cater to more mature customers. Whilst younger generations are often keen to support environmental initiatives – or at least claim to be concerned about sustainability – we only have to look at the queues outside Primark when stores reopened to see that a significant proportion of the population are still happy to buy “fast fashion”. 

Putting responsibility solely into consumers’ hands is not right; retailers should lead the charge here. We do also need Government incentives (both carrots and sticks) to ensure the industry is incentivised appropriately and to ensure that retailers which are not sufficiently supporting environmental initiatives are taking account of the externalities they cause.

3. Increasing Focus on Local Sourcing 

Another area where retailers should take more responsibility for reducing emissions is in sourcing; especially when they are shipping by air. Again, it is often difficult to source from Europe, or even the UK, for retailers that are primarily competing on price. However those that are more concerned with provenance, quality and their impact on society may in fact find that sourcing more British products can become a way to differentiate in the market.

Last year, Kantar identified “localism” as a retail trend that will be part of the fallout from Covid-19. Seekology is a perfect example of this; our customers frequently ask about which products have been made in the UK, and even which have been made by local brands near our shop in Richmond. Among more affluent customers, I expect this focus on local brands and businesses to be a continuing trend even when life returns to a semblance of “normal”.

4. Switching to Stock More Sustainable Products  

Another option for independent retailers is to change the products they stock. Substituting products with more sustainable options will not just encourage consumers to shop more sustainably but also do good for the environment. From solid shampoos to toothpaste tablets, and plastic free deodorants - encouraging consumers to shop sustainably is possible through providing sustainable products. Check out our sustainability collection here

5. Revamp the Sample Model in Beauty

As the founder of Seekology, an independent retailer that sells products from over 80 small beauty + wellbeing brands, I have seen first hand the challenges in the beauty industry. There is a lot of pressure from customers for brands to provide product samples, such as vials of perfume or plastic sachets of skincare. However it is extremely hard for brands to find cost-effective and non-wasteful solutions in these areas and, despite this pressure, almost half of samples sent to customers are thrown out without ever being opened

An illustration of a great way for customers to try skincare products is the Facial in a Box Starter Trial Kit by Meadow Botanical. This luxury set contains all their products in a small size, so you can try them out for a couple of weeks - which is much more valuable than a single application. Plus, these samples are sustainably packaged and recyclable (not to mention that Meadow Botanical sources locally wherever possible, including using lavender from their local farm in Kent). 

I'd love to see more brands following this example, charging for samples or tester packs, with larger sizes that can more effectively be placed in glass or metal recyclable containers. And of course we are also seeing a rise in much more sustainable options such as solid shampoos (like these by Kind2), which can be sold with just minimal packaging.

So please read the report for yourself, and whether you are a customer or a retailer think about making more sustainable choices this year.