Responsible retail is everyone’s business

Published: 11th Jul 2017 by Debbie Griffiths
Categories: Branding,  CSR,  Sustainability

In July 1992, I made a life-changing decision, sending my CV in on spec to The Body Shop head office. I followed my heart as a devoted customer and fan. Not just of the products, but the company’s ethics: using natural ingredients, caring for the planet, people and animals. Back then, it was so new, so different.

As an employee, I quickly realised how much the company and my boss, Anita Roddick, rocked the establishment. The City and stock market thought she was a loony tree hugger. We didn’t care. More importantly, neither did the customers, who loved our campaigns as much as the cosmetics.

Fast forward 25 years and The Body Shop is being sold to Natura Cosmeticos for 1bn euros. Not bad for a business that analysts labelled ‘ailing’ under L’Oreal; which was not surprising, given that the French beauty giant is more of a brand owner than a retailer. Retail is about so much more than products.

Consumer excess

The problem today is that many of us have too much stuff that we don’t actually need or use while too many people still don’t have enough to meet their basic needs.

A friend of mine recently moved house and took 50 pairs of shoes plus bags of clothes to the charity shop. Stuff she’d never worn or just once. She kept the top brands – the ones she’s emotionally attached to. It was easier to say goodbye to the cheaper impulse fashion buys.

But before you jump to judge fashion – a favourite example of consumer excess – what about all that clapped-out electronic kit in your garage or cupboard? The stuff that was cheaper to replace than repair? Or was too slow. Or just looked a bit dated! The best it can hope for is recycling. At least my friend’s stuff will be reused. 

Decent trade

The globe’s growing middle class is accelerating towards peak stuff. And many are already there. But who’s to blame? The marketers who tap into our weaknesses? Social media spreading the seeds of rampant consumerism? I always remember Anita saying “the world doesn’t need another toggle-woggle toothbrush, it needs decent trade”.

That’s the essence of retail: trade. Buying and selling. Not just the consumer buying from the retailer. But the retailer trading with the manufacturer, who buys in labour from employees and raw materials and services from suppliers.

It’s the distributor trading with the retailer who also deals with energy and waste contractors. The advertisers trading in dreams and desires. And the investors dealing in the company’s shares. Multiple economic stakeholders involved in millions of transactions.

Seismic shift

Before 2008, many people feared retailers were becoming too big and powerful, but the sector has undergone a seismic shift since then. The once dominant players have lost ground on all sides.

We’ve seen the rise of luxury brands at one end and discounters at the other – in shops and on the net. All competing for our squeezed consumer spend.

In addition, retailers can expect to have NGOs putting them and their value chains under the spotlight, highlighting environmental degradation and human rights abuses in far flung communities. The unions and United Nations calling for better conditions for workers. The media investigating pay and tax practices. Political uncertainty and unpredictable weather – yes, the environment is a stakeholder, too.

Everyone’s business

As a former ethical retail employee turned supplier of CSR communications services, I have a professional interest in shaping the sector’s economic, environmental and social sustainability. That’s why I’m attending the edie Responsible Retail Conference on 20 September 2017.

Whatever your day job, unless you are truly self-sufficient, each and every one of us engages with multiple retailers to meet our multiple consumer needs. From food and clothing up to household goods and the odd luxury item.

We therefore share an interest in hearing what Tesco, Pret A Manger, IKEA and even Swarovski have to say. And in knowing what fashion brands as diverse as Clarks shoes and Primark, Debenhams, House of Fraser and John Lewis are doing to make retail more responsible.

I hope to see you at the conference. Claim a 20% discount using the code IWS20 at the checkout:   Book by 11 August for the second early bird rate.  

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