Concerns about the environment have been bubbling away in the general and business community for the past couple of decades. In early October (2018) they came to the forefront once again with the publication of a major UN report on the future threats to the planet.

Specifically the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced a report which indicates there is a high risk of global warming if it passes 1.5 C degrees. If it goes beyond this figure then there are major threats of drought, floods and “all things nasty”.

This report has its genesis in the 2016 Paris Agreement and appears to reinforce the widely-held fears of governments and policies about the continuing way in which we are damaging the environment.

Coincidently and around the same time as the publication of this report, the UK government questioned some of the practices of fashion retailers about what specific measures they were implementing in order to address the environmental and social impact of the items that they sell to their customers.

They wrote to ten of the top fashion retailers (M&S, Next, Primark, Arcade, Asda, TK Maxx & Homeservice, Tesco, JD Sport, Debenhams and Sports Direct outlining their concerns and questions.

This sector is valued at around £20 billion to the UK economy.

This reawakened by interest in this subject – a topic that we address in some detail in one of the chapters in my book.

As we discussed in that chapter the environment touches upon almost every aspect of a retailer’s business operations: from transportation to recycling; from working conditions to pay and through to the materials that are used in clothing. It is the best example of how to define the word “ubiquitous”.

If we look at the literature on the retailer’s response to the environment we can see that many of them have adopted a proactive and planned approach. For example in the UK, Marks and Spencer was one of the first to develop and implement such a plan. Many others have followed.

Cynics have suggested that many retailers pay lip service to the environment: indeed some have been accused of using it as an attempt to “greenwash” people into believing that they are instigating initiatives when in fact they are, at worst, misleading them or at best, cultivating a “good news story” in order to place them in a favourable light.

The UK government has challenged fashion retailers to examine and re-assess their respective approaches to the design, production and discarding of clothing.

I am always intrigued by the role that the consumer plays in this process.

I will give you an example. Over the past twelve months or so I have conducted classes on this topic with a wide range of students (under-graduates, honours students, MSc and MBA candidates) in the UK, Europe, South-east Asia and the Gulf Region. I have asked each group to specify which of the following categories they belong to: environmentally aware shoppers, neutral or couldn’t care less.

In total I would have posed the question to over seven hundred students. While I appreciate that it does not necessarily represent scientific and publishable research, it nonetheless provides an indicator as to people’s views and opinions.

What was the result? In all classes and in all international centres, about ten per cent indicated that they were concerned about the environment, about sixty percent suggested that it was not something that concerned them and thirty per cent highlighted that they couldn’t care less about the topic.

What are we to make of these views? From a marketing perspective I would suggest that the various stakeholders have under-estimated the challenge of convincing and converting people’s attitudes before we might see evidence that shoppers are likely to change their shopping behaviour and habits.

While not necessarily challenging the exhortations from governments and institutions such as the UN, I would argue that it is not sufficient to “blind” people with all sorts of scientific data and evidence in a directional and in some cases, condescending manner. For many of us such messages go over our heads.

Specifically in the case of retailing shoppers need an incentive to switch their purchasing of clothes away from items that damage the environment.

This takes us to the heart of the matter. It is a reality that if people are to purchase eco-friendly clothing items, they will have to pay more for the privilege.

Retailers have also had to grapple with the issue of cost. However many have realised that if they examine and assess each aspect of their supply chain, they can pinpoint areas where savings can be made in areas such as recycling, energy and more efficient modes of transportation. In other words, while there may be initial costs associated with revamping transportation or introducing various initiatives within each individual store, benefits will accrue.

An example of this is where retailers work with third-party operators such as suppliers and freight forwarders in order to address environmental issues. In the latter case some of the more proactive freight forwarders are introducing technology to calculate carbon emission levels for their retailers. This initiative can break down the analysis by the mode of transit, the supplier and the location. They can provide information on what the statistics are equivalent to. For example 5 tons of CO2 emissions equals half of a person’s home energy.

Marks and Spencer have set a target, in their Plan A 2025 initiative of becoming a zero-waste business by that date.

Retailers are also reviewing their key performance criteria when selecting suppliers. The latter will increasingly have to meet stringent targets with respect to their use of eco-materials and transportation modes.

While all of these initiatives are being adopted in an increasingly focused manner by retailers, I still contend that not enough is being done to work more closely with perhaps the most important constituent stakeholder: the shopper.

Most of us do not like being told what to do or apparently being foisted with an increasing list of directives from policy-makers.

This is best illustrated in the use of plastics in many of the materials that are used in fashion retailing. Every time one of these items is put into the washing machine it releases micro plastic fibres. These find their way into the environment and collectively, over time, can damage the oceans. Do many of use care? How much of this does not register with us?

Many of us, particularly the younger demographic, actively participate in “disposable fashion”. We DO NOT purchase a shirt or blouse to last us for a few years (like perhaps our parents once did). Instead we wear it for a couple of times and dump the item in our bins. They eventually clog up landfill sites.

When we factor in the amount of merchandise that is dumped or discarded by retailers in such landfill sites, we begin to get an idea of the likely damage to the environment.

Can we convince people that we should only buy material that is less damaging, but more costly? Can we argue that we should buy clothing that will last for the longer-term? When many of us want to buy items that provide instant gratification but are not seen as something that remains in the wardrobe.

It will take time to change such views and retailers will have to become more creative in encouraging shoppers to alter their shopping behaviours. In my view it will take a generation to do so. What do you think?


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