How Retailers Can Avoid Common Sustainability Missteps

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These days, just about every business is looking into the ways it can promote more sustainable commerce. For retailers, however, true sustainability can be difficult to pull off. Many well-meaning businesses fall into all-too-common practices like greenwashing or doing the bare minimum and fail to make a real difference.

To avoid these common missteps, you’ll need to do your research. Luckily, big data and advancing technologies are driving sustainability insights in the retail space. From your business plan to your supply chains, these best practices will set you on the right path to sustainability.

1. Do Your Research

First, you have to start by doing your research. This begins with learning what sustainability means for you and your customers. You don’t want to make assumptions about what your customers want, only to prioritize green innovations that will ultimately be underutilized.

Instead, gather public opinion. Explore retail research. What sustainably sourced products are customers interested in buying? What green services would customers be willing to pay more for? You need an approach to sustainability that is both meaningful and economically viable.


Then, do thorough research into all your partners and allegedly “green” practices. Greenwashing is the process of making a false or misleading claim about the environmental healthiness of a product without having real evidence to back up that claim. Avoid this misstep by diving into the background and procedures of your inventory and policies.

2. Hire an Expert

Now that you know what kind of research has to be involved in true sustainability, you might feel a little bit overwhelmed. Fortunately for you, some people have dedicated their entire careers to analyzing sustainability approaches and implementing feasible initiatives. These sustainability specialists are available to help a business achieve sustainability outcomes that meet their needs, goals and abilities.

By hiring an expert, you can avoid the common misstep of relying on DIY research and assumptions. Instead, you can bring education and expertise to bear through a professional that knows what sustainable business practices look like.

Of course, not every retailer will have the funds to staff an expert long-term. Luckily, even a consultation with a sustainability expert can help you get on the path toward green business.

3. Go Above and Beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way consumers shop. Now more than ever before they care about the methods by which their products are sourced and handled. Consumers want to support shops that see sustainability as an ethical imperative and will be eager to spend money with such a business. In fact, sustainability is such a huge draw for consumers that it just might be the new competitive edge in retail.

To be competitive, however, retailers need to go above and beyond with their approaches to sustainability. Too many businesses do the bare minimum. In some cases, this does more damage than good.

For example, Starbucks switched to a strawless lid in 2018 as part of its sustainability push. However, this lid actually contained more plastic than the original lid and straw combination. Starbucks defended this move because the lid was composed of recyclable polypropylene, but since only a small percentage of plastic gets put in a recycling container anyway, the company likely only made their plastic waste contribution worse.

By going above and beyond, you avoid the misstep of failing to make a real difference at all and getting called out on it later by your customers.

4. Be Honest

Similarly, retailers must remain honest and transparent about their sustainability measures. If a process is truly sustainable, it should be no problem to offer simple explanations of how on your business website or signage within the store.

Honesty is one of the best tools at your disposal for combatting greenwashing. By staying away from false claims and maintaining transparency about your business processes on social media and other platforms, you put yourself in a position to gain the trust and support of your customers in the long term.

Avoid the mistake of making misleading sustainability claims by maintaining a policy of honesty. Customers will recognize and appreciate the effort.

5. Build Local Networks and Supply Alternatives

Finally, retailers can establish true sustainability best by establishing broad and flexible networks of materials suppliers and vendors. Improving sustainability across supply chains requires a cycle of well-researched practices as businesses acquire raw materials, consolidate orders and reduce their waste. Every link in the chain must be on the same page to make a real difference in sustainable outcomes.

Starting locally, you can source products from sources that you know are committed to sustainable practices in every respect: environmentally, economically and socially. From here, you can strategize with supply alternatives should you need to adjust your business practices. A plan helps you ensure that sustainability can be considered even in an emergency.

With a network of sustainable partners and vendors assembled, you can avoid the misstep of losing sustainability down the supply chain.

Commit to True Retail Sustainability

By following these strategies, retailers can avoid the missteps that plague many businesses that try to pivot toward green practices without a well-researched plan in place. The process has to begin from a place of authenticity and passion. From there, you can build the kind of transparent and thoroughly vetted strategies you’ll need to earn the benefits of sustainability.

With the right approach, retailers can earn the respect and loyalty of a broader customer base while creating opportunities through partnerships with like-minded businesses. Commit to true sustainability in your retail business now to start reaping these rewards.

Jori Hamilton is an experienced writer residing in the Northwestern U.S. She covers a wide range of subjects, including topics relating to business productivity, marketing strategies, and consumer retention. To learn more about Hamilton, you can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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