NRF: Sustainability Still Searching for the Why
With the eco-movement at retail steadily building for years, it’s surprising
that nearly all of the Sustainability Sessions at Sunday’s NRF convention touched
on the motivations for going green. The unasked question: If the majority of
consumers still aren’t ‘demanding’ it, what’s driving the movement?
Speaking at one session, Kevin Hagen, director of social responsibility at
REI, the outdoors chain, listed reasons why retailers and brands must have
proactive plans for product stewardship. One is activists — he showed a sign
outside a Disney store exclaiming, "Stop Selling Toxic Pajamas to Kids." Second,
government agencies are holding firms accountable to know what’s in their products
and where they come from. Third, consumers are asking for more detailed social
and environmental information behind products. Finally, it’s comprehensive
programs across retail, particularly Walmart’s.
But another reason is retail’s reputation. As an example, Mr. Hagen encouraged
the room to view "Story of Stuff," a 20-minute film attacking America’s
culture of consumerism by activist Annie Leonard that has been viewed over
1.3 million times on YouTube.
"It’s going to have two impacts on you if you’re like me," said
Mr. Hagen. "First of all, it’s ‘Wow! That’s really depressing.’ The second
is ‘Wow! That’s really inflammatory.’ Because as a business person, ‘The Story
of Stuff’ says that not only are we part of the problem, we are the problem."
He also somewhat agrees that retail has culpability for the "take-make-waste" environment. "Our
sort of rational for a long time has been – ‘We’re making an economic impact
and we’re hiring people and we’re doing good things. And we’re giving people
what they want and people keep buying the stuff so it must be okay.’ – and
we kind of realize that we’re rationalizing to ourselves a little bit."
Eventually, green promises to be used much more as a sales tool. Mr. Hagen
was speaking on behalf of the Eco Index, an environmental assessment tool being
piloted by more than 100 companies within and beyond the outdoor industry.
It is currently being used to measure the environmental footprint of apparel,
footwear and gear but expected to eventually be used as a customer-facing label,
mimicking the Energy Star series on appliances.
Four years into development, however, the content isn’t deemed to be rich
enough to come up with a rating system for consumers. Said Mr. Hagen, "Our
supply chain is great at getting us product. It’s really terrible at giving
But he insists sustainability doesn’t have to be consumer-driven.
"I think the ultimate question is – why do we need customers’ permission
to do this? We’re finding innovation in our supply chain. We’re actually driving
costs down or making better products. Consumers will love it. But they don’t
need to be the reason why we’re doing it. And ultimately they’re going to appreciate
what we’re doing and it’s [becoming a requirement]. It’s no longer the cool
green thing to sell. It’s the expectation that we know what’s in it and where
it came from and we got to figure out how to get that information."
Discussion Questions: What do you think is driving
sustainability efforts for retailers and brands? How critical is it that
sustainability programs have a strong consumer-driven component?