Sustainability in retail: a trend or the only way forwards?

29th July 2022 | Lucy Millar

Sustainability has never been more important in retail – both in terms of meeting consumer needs and maintaining relevance. But just as consumers’ interest in sustainability is becoming more prevalent, they are also getting better at telling whether a brand’s sustainability efforts are genuine, or merely an attempt to keep up with the trend.

Although sustainability and ethical sourcing are trending, this is likely due to increased customer demand, and may not follow the usual trend pattern due to its real importance in the future of business (and life as we know it).

'There is no planet B' protest sign

Consumers’ changing values

Interest in ethical and sustainable shopping has sky-rocketed over the last few years, with terms such as ‘ethical brands,’ ‘sustainability,’ ‘second-hand’ and ‘recycled materials’ all reaching peak interest in the UK between 2020 and now (data source: Google Trends). This is no coincidence – since the beginning of the pandemic, huge societal shifts have forced people to reassess their values and lifestyle choices.

20% of respondents to a YouGov survey said they had avoided purchasing items from brands due to environmental concerns, indicating that there is a real threat of customer loss if brands do not keep up with sustainability demands.

This shift is also leading to an increased momentum behind thrifting instead of buying new. Second-hand goods pioneer eBay found that although financial reasons were the main motivator behind consumers’ decision to purchase preloved goods, 42% of respondents also cited environmental concerns, primarily their desire to reduce waste.

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to consumers, resulting in a motivation to cater to that value to increase profits. This change in consumer values may reflect a mixture of genuine care about ethical sourcing, and superficial efforts to feel better about oneself, but it is a meaningful change nonetheless.

So why are retailers jumping on the sustainability bandwagon? Because it is ‘trendy,’ or because it is the industry’s only way forwards?


Clothes at a retail store

Greenwashing refers to brands’ use of vague or false claims about their products’ sustainability to attract consumers. For example, a brand may promote a new range of ‘ethical’ products or products ‘made from recycled materials,’ whilst making little effort to reduce carbon emissions in the production, transport or disposal of stock. This is particularly prevalent in the fashion industry, where nearly 60% of sustainable fashion claims were found to be greenwashing.

Similarly, brands often make pledges to cut their carbon emissions by a certain percentage in a certain timeframe, but all too frequently fail to outline how they intend to do this or provide any follow-up at the end of the timeframe.

It is safe to say that companies using these tactics view sustainability as a trend, and are banking on the fact that simply saying their products and practices are ‘sustainable’ will be enough to convince customers with ethical values to purchase their products.

The only way forwards

However, the reality is not as simple as deeming a brand or product ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ – creating true sustainability in retail involves breaking down and rebuilding everything we currently know about business.

The end of planned obsolescence

Creating a long-term, recurring customer base through planned obsolescence is a popular business strategy, but is at its core the direct opponent to sustainable retail.

To be truly sustainable, retailers should aim to create products made of good quality materials designed to last. Not only does this reduce waste and cut manufacturing emissions, but longevity is desirable and can be an invaluable selling point for your product that will result in positive reviews and recommendations – it’s a win-win.

The use of data

Graphs and data on a computer screen

Another way to reduce waste is through predictive forecasting: the use of data modelling to understand which products (and how many) consumers are most likely to buy and where they will be purchased. The results can be used for more accurate demand planning and delivery optimisation, thus avoiding unnecessary surpluses.

Retailers can also use datasets and AI technology to check how their current processes impact the environment and ensure they keep on track with their sustainability goals and pledges.

Data is crucial for sustainability efforts – companies can only manage what they’re able to measure. Moreover, it is not just about what you pledge to do anymore, as increased access to data means that sustainable practices are a tangible measure that consumers are using to determine whether to buy from your business.

Just another trend?

Trends are typically defined by their cyclical nature through the stages of introduction, rise, acceptance, decline, and obsolescence, but interest and awareness surrounding sustainability have only been escalating

Although sustainability may look like just another retail trend in certain ways, this one is unlikely to be cycled out any time soon. With our detrimental impact on the planet becoming increasingly evident, businesses will have no choice but to get on board if they are going to survive and grow.


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