Sustainable Retail Is Unsustainable. Let’s Redefine It.

Every player in the world of retailing has jumped on the sustainability bandwagon in the past few years, offering lofty-sounding mission and policy statements and initiatives that sound good but defy concrete definitions. Likewise, the universe of consumers has embraced the sustainable concept, but cannot agree on what it means.

A 2020 survey of 2,000 U.S. and UK individuals by CGS, a business applications provider, found that half or more rated sustainability as an important factor in their purchase decisions. But when asked to define sustainable, one in four Americans said it was waste reduction and eco-friendliness, while another 22% defined it as ethical practices. 

The two go together in theory, but that doesn’t tell you much about what sustainability looks like on the ground where commerce takes place, evidenced in part by the fact that half of those respondents in the CGS survey said brands aren’t demonstrating sustainable practices. How would they know?

The confusion begins with the inconvenient truth that there is no such thing as truly sustainable retail in a supply-driven world, especially so in fashion and similar discretionary purchases. 

So where to start?

In my mind, sustainability in retail is waste reduction, pure and simple.

That’s because retailing as we know it today is supply driven. Retailing eggs qualifies as truly sustainable because eggs are a commodity, the price of which goes up or down based on demand. When demand is high, farmers raise more egg-laying chickens. When demand falls, chickens are not incinerated like last season’s Burberry bags and unsold clothing. They become legs, thighs, and breasts.

Retail as a whole is wasteful, even when it’s done mindfully, judged on packaging alone. Who among us has not paused in awe at the pile of cardboard, tissue paper, plastic bags, and foam packing that’s left after opening a box from Amazon

The closest thing to a sustainable fashion product might be a pair of shoes from Allen Edmonds, the high-end footwear maker and retailer based in Port Washington, Wisconsin. Edmonds shoes are pricey (starting at about $250 for sneakers). But they are so well made that the company will “recraft” your worn pair of Edmonds and return them to you refurbished with new soles—over and over again, as long as you live.

Consumers who truly care about sustainability will recognize that having the latest fashion in footwear is ultimately more expensive (look in your closet and count how many pairs of shoes you bought but never wear anymore) than buying one pair that can be recrafted over and over. 

Instead, we have the universal phenomenon of even the most ordinary product arriving on our doorstep after a cross-country or global journey, in packaging that just may be more expensive than the product. That bedding you bought online for your child’s guinea pig will come in a bag that’s wrapped in paper and shipped in a box. Guinea pig bedding is nothing more than sawdust with a marketing campaign behind it.

Toyota is another example of a company that reinvented itself on a platform of sustainability—half a century before sustainability was a concept.

Those who are older will remember that Toyota arrived in America in the 1960s as a brand with a built-in problem. It was “Made in Japan,” a label that meant cheap, shoddy merchandise made in the years after World War Two.

So, the company set about making cars that would last longer than American cars, which tended to rust out early and were generally considered ready for the junkyard after 100,000 miles. (Odometers on American cars only went as high as 99,999, and there were laws on the books to protect consumers from being conned into buying cars whose odometers had flipped over to zero.)

By the 1970s, Toyota had established itself as a maker of cars that lasted longer and ran farther on a gallon of then-very-expensive gas. The models they made that way are the staples of the company’s line of cars today. A 1971 Toyota Corolla reportedly racked up 610,000 miles. When a 2007 Toyota Tundra hit the 1,000,000 mile mark, the company gave the owner a new one.

Companies that brag about how sustainable they are would do well to avoid using language that is murky and ill-defined and call what they’re trying to accomplish what it is: less waste at every stage of the design, production, transportation, and sale of their products.

Someday these other companies may reach a point where Toyota is today, having no need to brag.

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