Sustainability is now more than just a buzzword or passing trend – it has a clear link to value for businesses. Two-thirds of UK and German consumers say that sustainability is now even more important to them to limit the impact of climate change than ever before, according to the Bloomberg New Economy Forum and McKinsey. And they’re making themselves heard through their wallets. Accenture found that consumers who score retailers higher on their business purpose spend 31% more.

With the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) coming up in November and the G7 Summit happening in June, the environment is very much in the news. Retail businesses that show they’re environmentally and socially conscious are more likely to succeed in the long term. In fact, Accenture found that 99% of chief executives see sustainability as critical to their future success.

Investors are interested in ESG

ESG stands for environment, social and governance; concerns which are used to measure the sustainability and social impact of a company. This includes things like working conditions, carbon emissions and management structures. ESG is now an important part of how a business is viewed, especially by investors who see it as a safer long-term bet. The average annual return for a sustainable fund has been 6.9% a year, while traditional funds see 6.3%.

The impact your business has on climate change, biodiversity and dwindling natural resources is key to quantifying how sustainable it is. The amount of production and consumption a company encourages has a huge effect on these things. The retail industry certainly plays a key role, with fashion alone contributing 4% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. So, of course, sustainability should be something you see more as a responsibility than a marketing ploy.

Proving your commitment to sustainability isn’t just about recycling more. It matters what your business principles are too, and how you communicate them. Today this is influencing consumers and investors alike. Here’s how you can do your bit for the planet and be rewarded by customer loyalty.

How to apply change across the lifecycle of a product

First of all, realise that you don’t have to completely overhaul everything at once. Start by trialing different materials, processes or even delivery methods and see what works for you. It’s easier to make a lasting change if you take it in small steps. From production to delivery, here’s what you could think about:

1. Choose your factories and materials wisely – Where your products are manufactured and who makes them is crucial. Do your research into the factories you’re working with and make sure they have fair conditions and pay in place for workers. On top of that, look into the kinds of materials being used. Be aware of the carbon footprint that goes into producing them and see what can be recycled or made from greener alternatives.

2. What to do with your waste – The limit isn’t just recycling (although obviously this is something you should be doing if you’re trying to be more sustainable). Think about your deadstock like leftover materials. Can you reuse or reprocess these to make other products? It’s important to use up what already exists, rather than constantly producing more.

3. Seek out greener packaging options – Are your cardboard boxes made from recycled materials? Do you use unnecessary bubble wrap or other single use plastics in your packaging? Think about how you could use recyclable tissue or wool to protect delicate items instead.

4. Ask what kind of transport is necessary - Could your delivery methods be more eco friendly? If you use airfreight could you switch to shipping? Are there suppliers or depots you could use that are closer to delivery destinations? And have a think about your own company travel. After the pandemic, do you need to make as many international trips?

5. Be more interactive with your customers - Encourage them to choose greener options by giving a choice of recycled packaging or premium wrapping. Look into recycling schemes you could implement to extend your product lifecycle, like Ikea’s Buy back initiative. Or you could release designs online and set up a waitlist so you have a clear idea of how many people want to buy your product. It’s an easier way to avoid excess stock, waste and boost your cash flow with customers paying in advance. You could also pledge to an eco initiative or charity that your customers contribute to, such as planting a tree for every order. KeepCup donates 1% of their profits to the philanthropic movement ‘Pledge 1%’.

6. Tackle your office - You can start small with quick switches like using LED light bulbs or a renewable energy supplier. Make sure recycling bins are available and try to reduce paper as much as possible. Digital inventories are a great place to start if you’re still doing things manually.

The impact of COVID-19

The pandemic certainly made its mark on the retail industry. Most retailers have been confined to online orders during lockdowns. What’s more, consumers’ needs and preferences have changed. We’re going out less, working from home and reevaluating our old habits and what stuff we really need.

As a result, 65% of German and UK consumers now want to invest in higher quality items that will last longer. As we start to see the economy strengthen, we have a chance to make sure the recovery is green. Acting responsibly and with care for the environment and society counts more than ever.

Make sure you avoid greenwashing

Greater transparency is part of your journey towards sustainability. If you’re making big environmental or ethical changes, make sure you tell people about them. Consumers have a lot more information now about brands and they use it to influence their wallets. Just make sure they’re not misleading or dishonest, as that falls under ‘greenwashing’ and you’ll do more damage when you’re found out. The “Pull Up or Shut Up” movement on social media called out brands that made false or empty eco claims.

Set clear targets and share them with your customers. This could be to do with cutting down the plastics you use or switching to renewable energy to produce your goods. Give the inspiring long-term goal, but make sure you’re also showing progress in the short term and have data to back things up. If you’re going to commit to change then it needs to be rooted in action and impact.

The future is green

There’s a lot you can do to run your business in a more sustainable way. And at some point in the future you may see your orders dwindle if you don’t. Making smart, environmentally friendly choices puts you on track to be rewarded in the long term by customers and investors alike. Just make sure your actions go deeper than marketing buzzwords and empty pledges.