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Retail needs a – “Mission Possible” – to create a sustainable future

Clim8 Team

17 September 2019 Community

Guest Blog – Mike Barry, ex-Head of Sustainability at M&S 

The Retail sector has done much in the last decade on sustainability but it’s increasingly apparent that all this has just been a dress rehearsal, a beginning not an end.  Lots of linear, individual targets, steadily ‘ticked off’ served a purpose, got the ‘flywheel spinning’. But this model cannot keep up with the environmental, social and economic pressures that retail faces. The urgency of the call for change from consumers, colleagues, shareholders, policymakers is palpable. 

Climatically we’ve smashed through the 410 ppm level for atmospheric CO2 levels. Much of the Northern Hemisphere has been in the grip of heatwaves for the last 2 summers. With 8 million tonnes of plastic pouring into the world’s oceans each year it’s become a ubiquitous pollutant in nature (found in fish, birds, sediment, drinking water, sewage sludge etc) and the ‘poster child’ of all that is wrong about a throwaway society.

So let’s be harsh on ourselves, the scale of our current plans is wholly inadequate. But we can change provided we develop quickly a new mind-set, one that recognises we need to:

  • Satisfy a massive untapped customer need on sustainability – The biggest blocker to change is the paralysis induced by an outdated 20th Century view of sustainable consumption i.e. green products inevitably cost more and perform worse and consumers are not willing to take this hit. This is no longer true. People do want to want to eat meat alternatives – provided they look and taste fantastic. They do want to drive Electric Vehicles – but first, they need a charging network they can be confident in. They do want to recycle clothes – provided it’s easy. Retailers who square the circle of ‘good for you, good for others’ will win.
  • Seize the potential of the digital revolution – Retail is made up of big numbers – 1000s of shops, 10000s of products, factories and farms, billions of items. Tracing all of this and tracking its social and environmental performance using a conventional ‘spreadsheet’ approach is impossible. Now AI, big data and sensors allow us to do this simply and efficiently.
  • Be active participants in creating a policy system in which sustainable retailing can thrive – retail today is regulated in an old fashioned 20th Century way. We need to help shape actively a new policy system on renewables, human rights, water resources etc that helps not hinders us in creating a sustainable future.
  • Supercharge Collaboration – retailers are a competitive bunch but in the last few years, we’ve started to learn how to collaborate to get sustainable things done faster, more cheaply and with greater scale. Plastics Pact, Champions (food waste), the Consumer Goods Forum (deforestation) all point to the potential of collaboration, and we need to be hungry for more.
  • Take a Systems approach – perhaps hardest of all we need some systems thinking. We’ve spent 40 years breaking retail down into tiny, functional silos. Now we need to recognise that consumption is a dependent ecosystem. Not just along an economic value chain. Not just in how we see consumers swapping seamlessly from a physical to an online retail experience but also in how we understand that the food system and nature are symbiotically linked and need to be managed as such.

And ultimately this is what a Retail Mission Possible is:  a mindset shift as much as a technology revolution, that recognises the profound need for change and embraces its potential to serve positively consumers, planet and society alike.