For many retailers today, sustainability sells.
But sustainability is no longer a matter of providing a reusable shopping bag or cutting greenhouse gases.
Behind-the-scenes moves have a fantastic effect on many retailers’ environmental impact and earn plenty of good press, but more and more retailers are bringing sustainable products to store shelves—and saying so is a selling point.
A natural spin
Not surprisingly, outdoor retailers dedicated to enjoying nature lead the pack. Last month, longtime ecofriendly operator Patagonia released a line of denim that features 100% organic cotton and an innovative dye process that uses 84% less water, energy, and chemicals than the typical pair of jeans. The line is also Fair Trade Certified, meaning laborers making the jeans are compensated appropriately.
“Traditional denim is a filthy business,” said Helena Barbour, director of the company’s Sportswear business unit, in a release. “We wanted to find an alternative solution to using the standard indigo dyeing methods we once employed. It took several years of research, innovation, trial and error, but the result is a new path for denim. We’re hopeful other manufacturers will follow suit.”
Rather than following, Levi Strauss & Co. had already gone down this road in 2010 with the introduction of its Waterthe Los Angeles Times.
Recycling for reuse
Rugged apparel marketer Timberland offers an Earthkeepers collection of shoes that incorporates recycled PET plastic from beverage bottles; the company’s Polartec, SmartWool and Bionic canvas fabrics also contain recycled PET. Since 2007, the company has kept 128 million bottles out of landfills.
“The idea is to put the most environmentally responsible materials possible into our products,” said Emily Alati, director of materials development for Timberland. “We created more and more material options to substitute for virgin raw materials where possible to meet this goal.”
Similarly, Portland-based NAU offers clothing made of sustainable materials such as recycled polyester and organic cotton. And retailers with a feel-good or holistic health pedigree rely on sustainability, too—GAIAM’s recycled-content yoga mats and organic-cotton bedding and apparel help buyers reduce their environmental impact.
West Elm jumped on the Fair Trade bandwagon last year with a line of rugs handcrafted in India, becoming one of the first home goods retailers to pitch products based on ethical working conditions.
“West Elm is empowering consumers to purchase according to their values and help alleviate poverty,” said Paul Rice, CEO and founder of Fair Trade USA.
Brands that support a cause “actually sell better,” Bloomingdale’s CEO Tony Spring told MarketWatch. “We are going to always look for what’s the most exciting product. But if there’s a human side to it, it sells even better.”
Transparency in trade
The key to selling a product based upon sustainability is to put the information directly in front of shoppers. For example, Timberland offers a Green Index rating to give customers an idea of products’ environmental footprint including climate impact, chemical use and resource consumption.
Outdoor retailer REI labels many of its apparel products with “ecoSensitive” labels to inform shoppers how much recycled, renewable and/or organic fibers they include. And Patagonia offers full disclosure by listing all of the textile mills and sewing factories it employs, as well as a product impact tracking tool, The Footprint Chronicles.
“Transparency efforts pay dividends,” said a 2013 Retail Sustainability Report from the Retail Leaders Industry Association (RILA). “When operations are transparent, retailers and suppliers alike can more easily identify opportunities to improve performance, and can develop plans to reduce costs or supply chain risks.”
Large retailers on board
The message is spreading. Even Wal-Mart is advocating a worldwide sustainability index that allows customers to assess goods’ environmental impact. Target’s new sustainability index already scores products based on toxicity, transparency and other factors such as recycling potential, and promotes high-performing products from Ben & Jerry’s, Annie’s, Stonyfield, Seventh Generation and Method, under its “Made to Matter” banner.
“Simply put, what matters to our guests matters to us,” Target’s chief merchandising and supply chain officer Kathee Tesija said in a statement. “We know our guests are looking for better-for-you and better-for-the-world products, and our research shows that they seek authenticity and transparency from the brands they buy.”
That factor is unlikely to dissipate in the age of the mobile web, which has helped make every purchase a considered purchase—and allows consumers to be just as careful in sourcing products for personal use as many companies are in their supply chains.
“While the business case for sustainability is clear, retailers also increasingly understand that the customer of tomorrow will demand more information about the environmental and social impact of the products they buy,” Bonnie Nixon, executive director of the Sustainability Consortium, said in a 2012 RILA report.
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