Sustainability is the watchword for 2020

By Robert Blood, Founder and Managing Director of SIGWATCH – the global NGO campaign tracking and issues analysis consultancy

2019 was ‘interesting’ and not just because of the election and the continuing concern about the High Street. It also witnessed a global backlash against disposable plastics and street protests against climate change, along with mounting anxiety about deforestation due to massive out of control fires in California, the Brazilian Amazon, Malaysia and Indonesia, and most recently Australia.

All these events are combining to push sustainability to the fore, and retailers are on the front line. Campaigning groups exploit retailers’ exposure to drive their own agendas. Acting as unappointed (but largely tolerated) proxies for consumers, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, Oxfam and PETA are skilled at playing retailers and brands off each other to get attention and make companies reform.

Without NGO (Non Governmental Organisation) pressure, Europe’s retailers would have been much slower at switching to certified sustainable palm oil. Plastics is next, and by comparison, it makes palm oil look like a doddle. Anyone who thought dropping plastic straws or replacing plastic with paper bags would keep the activists at bay was in for a nasty surprise. Nothing less than a wholesale transformation from single use to reusable packaging will do – what Greenpeace is calling the ‘Reuse Revolution’.

In-store self-fill lines in the dry goods sections of supermarkets are the start, as we have seen in the UK and Germany. If shoppers don’t lose patience with the increased inconvenience, some types of retailing, not just food but also personal and home care, will look very different by the end of this decade.

Climate change and the Amazon forest fires have also raised serious questions about modern agriculture. Activists have long questioned the dependency of European livestock production on imported grain from Latin America. Retailers are being challenged to account for, and mitigate, the climate and biodiversity ‘footprint’ of meat, poultry and dairy, affecting how they manage global supply chains. Second, they need to meet growing demand for non-meat food choices with the rise of ‘green vegetarianism’ and veganism, spurred by environmental concerns rather than traditional health or ethical reasons.

Unlike the chain restaurants, retailers are proving a bit slower to respond to rising vegetarian demand, although recently a UK supermarket chain was praised by the Eating Better Alliance for widening its range of plant-based options

The fashion sector is also under pressure to respond to the green trend, not only to deal with the intrinsic wastefulness of cheap fast fashion, but also to eschew animal-sourced textiles. Some thought that the plastics backlash would boost leather sales, but in practice, many of those who are hostile to plastic are apparently also hostile to leather, and seek out plant-based fabrics like cotton and bamboo. Last July (2019), a popular Swedish clothing retailer won plaudits from the animal rights group PETA in France for pioneering non-animal/non-plastic fashion. Maybe aisles dedicated to vegan fashion will the next ethical trend.

Many activists believe consumers have reached a tipping point on sustainability. It’s no longer something for niche brands and retailers, but an expectation of all manufacturers to deliver in a meaningful and substantive way. It is also likely to be a source of much innovation in materials, brands, and the way products are sold. Could the seed of the High Street’s revival lie within?

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