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Amid COVID-19, Consumers Still Care About Sustainability. How Can Canadian Retailers Respond?

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By DeAnn Campbell

In an age where consumers have a literal world of shopping at their fingertips, how can a brand or retailer stand out? Attention is today’s currency, and retailers must work harder than ever to earn it.

Over the last three years, retailers have invested in store experiences to engage and differentiate. Canada Goose, for instance, installed freezers in its showrooms that simulate an Arctic wonderland to prove the warmth of its products. With today’s consumers reluctant to try on coats, however, these rooms sit empty.

In fact, savvy retailers across the board know they’ll need a different approach moving forward. Thanks to COVID-19, shoppers are afraid to dwell long enough in stores to engage in experiences — a reality projected to last well into next year. But retailers can’t wait: They need to stay connected and relevant to consumers now, and the most effective way to do so is by supporting the issues consumers care about.

Consumers Care About Climate Catastrophe

In 2018, Yale University’s Climate Opinion Map showed that 70% of the U.S. population was more concerned about global warming than the economy.

And something else has happened to us during our months of lockdown and social distancing: We were given an unprecedented glimpse at the promise of a better world. We watched Instagram videos of playful dolphins swimming the canals of Venice and majestic mountain skylines that smog had previously hidden. We saw tangible proof that the environment has the capacity to heal.

Although COVID-19 has pushed everyday environmental efforts aside temporarily, the larger issues around the environment and global warming are even more critical in consumers’ minds. Retailers that support these issues — and, more importantly, give consumers a way to participate in supporting these issues — will not only maintain, but also boost customer loyalty and lifetime value.

In fact, 71% of consumers were already factoring the environment into their purchase decisions in 2019. That number jumped to 78% in March 2020 — and then jumped again to 83% just one month later. Even during a pandemic, consumers care about sustainability.

IN-STORE FREEZERS IN CANADA GOOSE LOCATION. PHOTO: CANADA GOOSE

Why Every Retailer’s Sustainability Matters

Becoming a sustainable retailer requires more than stocking organic or recyclable products and some well-meaning graphics. Access to Google and social media has made consumers savvy about which retailers are genuine about their efforts.

Retailers are now having to go deeper to show authenticity, and this means each aspect of their business practices must strike a balance between protecting the environment and supporting revenue growth. All areas of the business model are impacted. This includes sustainable product packaging, recycling, reduction of carbon emissions from delivery, and even store environments and fixtures created with sustainable materials.

You must also consider how you handle product returns. What percentage of returns wind up in a landfill? Are they shipped long distances to a distribution centre or trucked multiple times to a third-party seller? Think through each and every aspect of a product’s life cycle and the retail experience to identify the necessary steps toward becoming an authentically sustainable operation.

On the flip side, ignoring sustainability today will cost you customers in the long run (if not now). With the rise of digital-only direct-to-consumer companies and online access to retailers around the globe, it’s becoming increasingly easier to find a retailer that will give you exactly what you want. And to shoppers, wants are now equal to price in terms of importance. They aim to support retailers with shared values, and sustainability now tops that list. This is one of the many shifts already happening in the Canadian retail space.

PATAGONIA LOCATION IN VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA WHERE THE WOOD THROUGHOUT THE STORE WAS RETRIEVED FROM THE PACIFIC OCEAN OR FROM LEFTOVER MATERIALS FROM A LOCAL YACHT CLUB. PHOTO: PATAGONIA

Walking the Walk

How you go about supporting meaningful environmental sustainability can vary depending on the products you sell. While a retailer selling beauty products needs to incorporate organic and sustainably harvested materials into its procurement system, a company selling televisions will need to focus more on recycling and limiting carbon emissions during shipping.

Your efforts cannot stop at products, however. Some retailers go to great lengths to stock ethically manufactured products made from sustainable materials, for instance, only to place them on displays laminated in plastic with nonrecyclable graphics containing harmful chemicals. Adding insult to injury, most of these displays will end up in a landfill after the promotion period ends.

Instill sustainability into every aspect of your retail business — not just where consumers can see it. Look for ways to incorporate environmental efforts into merchandising, distribution, and training. Ask every vendor, supplier, employee, and consumer to engage in the process. Drive sustainability beyond the store, stressing why conservation is important.

Take Patagonia as an example. The clothing brand hasn’t only focused on sustainability in its product manufacturing, but in its store design as well. Each store uses reclaimed materials and sustainable construction methods. At its Victoria, British Columbia, location, the wood throughout the store was retrieved from the Pacific Ocean or from leftover materials from a local yacht club.

Nordstrom, one of our clients, also announced a plan to cut single-use plastic in half by 2025. Besides this, it’s considering ways to accept beauty packaging for recycling and help consumers donate used clothing. Likewise, Starbucks is playing a role by building LEED-certified stores, which mandate the use of recycled materials, sustainably harvested wood, and more. Where available, it has also tapped into local wind and solar programs to utilize renewable energy. And Eco+amour, a retailer based in Toronto, sells zero-waste products by using refillable containers for lotions and shampoos.

The list of retailers moving toward sustainability is rapidly growing, and companies of any size can take part. The first step to a successful sustainability program is to sit down with your team and create a road map. Write down the actions you can implement today, tomorrow, and at subsequent milestones to arrive at your goal.

Be specific about what that goal looks like and target real deadlines. What can you do to use more plant-based packaging? What can you do to lower carbon emissions? What can you do to relieve some of the burdens on consumers? And most importantly, how do you convey your efforts to consumers to engage their loyalty and support?

Each step you take toward sustainability doesn’t just support the community at large, but also helps you stand out in a crowded marketplace. In fact, not being a sustainable retailer might make you stand out for all the wrong reasons — which certainly isn’t the best way to win market share. What role can your company play in ensuring a stable future for generations to come?

DeAnn Campbell is leading the next evolutionary era of retail: the shift beyond converged commerce to Harmonic Retail,™ where online and offline experiences don’t merely integrate, but interact, enrich, and react upon one another to create a living, harmonized brand expression throughout the customer journey. DeAnn holds a Bachelor of Architecture, is LEED ID+C accredited, and currently heads up retail strategy and insights at Harbor Retail.

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