British Shoppers Want Sustainability. Retailers Are Grappling With How to Give It to Them

'We're not going to have a sodding planet'

uk retailers sustainability climate change
Despite an interest in sustainable products, only 20% of U.K. shoppers are committed to it. Getty Images
Headshot of Diana Pearl

This story is part of a weeklong series on climate change and sustainability. It’s in partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative to cover climate change in the week leading up to the U.N. summit on climate change in New York on Sept. 23. Click here to learn more about the initiative and read all of Adweek’s coverage on how sustainability and marketing intersect.

LONDON—Doing the right thing for the environment is easier said than done. You can use a reusable bag instead of a plastic one, but does the energy required to create that reusable bag cancel out the benefit of saving the plastic bag from the landfill?

We've got too much stuff, and it's too cheap.
Mary Portas, retail consultant

The quest to be environmentally friendly is full of contradictions just like this. In the end, consumption of any kind is inevitably harming the planet. Oftentimes, that means consumers—and companies—are faced with a seemingly impossible question: How do they strike a balance between being as environmentally friendly as they can be while still living a normal life, or conducting a profitable business?

Retailers were facing that exact question at last week’s FT The Future of Retail summit in London, hosted by the Financial Times. Representatives from brands like supermarket chain Tesco, Ikea and grocery giant Ahold Delhaize took the stage to talk about how they’re balancing sustainability with encouraging people to shop—in and of itself a not very sustainable task.

For retailers and brands, it makes good business sense (as well as environmental) to shift these priorities, as shoppers are increasingly demanding sustainability, particularly in the United Kingdom. A new survey of 1,500 U.K. buyers from product information management company inRiver found that 90% of consumers are willing to purchase an item that’s been designated as environmentally friendly with a term like recycled or upcycled, with nearly half (47%) willing to pay more for these items. Additionally, 66% would stop buying a brand or shopping at a retailer if they were found to employ practices that were detrimental to the environment.

Steve Gershik, CMO of inRiver, told Adweek it’s not a massive surprise that British consumers feel strongly about sustainability. “U.K. consumers have always been leaders, and U.K. shoppers have always had affinities for particular brands,” Gershik said. “And they’re starting to indicate their preferences: Woe unto a brand that doesn’t listen to these emerging trends.”

What shifting to sustainability will look like

Brands not only need to listen, but they need to change—in a major way. At the Future of Retail summit, famed British retail consultant Mary Portas said change is not only inevitable, but will shift the entire retail business model as we know it.

“All [retailers] are still working with the same business model, which was, ‘How much stuff can we sell? How quickly can we sell it? How big, how fast? That was the whole basis of the last 20 years,” Portas said. “You have to change that and you have to change your priorities and your vision for the business, and it needs to come from the top.”

Brands are listening and making changes, Portas said, but she also feels that for now, the real efforts are disguising a bit of showmanship: Brands are acting like they’re doing more than they actually might be.

“I think there’s a bit of greenwashing going on,” she said. “I don’t think there’s yet a total, utter shift in where they are placing their business priorities, because why would you [move] too fast unless you have to?”

This “greenwashing” is happening on the consumer side as well. While 90% of U.K. shoppers are open to purchasing recycled items, only 20% are fully committed to buying sustainable goods. The issue? Making these sort of changes, whether as a consumer or as a retailer, means sacrifice. For consumers, it might mean the goods they want to buy are more expensive than in the past. For retailers and brands, it might mean margins are not as big, or product releases aren’t as frequent.

Portas said the responsibility for bringing consumers into this new era sits largely on the shoulders of brands and retailers. If they change their own systems to produce fewer, higher quality goods at a more expensive price point, consumers will understand it as the new normal.

“We’ve got too much stuff, and it’s too cheap,” Portas said. “People need to be educated that that’s going to change. You are going to be buying less, but you are going to be buying better.”

Gershik said inRiver’s survey results show that U.K. shoppers are open to those sorts of changes, even if the ultimate transition is gradual.

“We’re in the early stages of this shift in buyer preferences,” Gershik said. “There are these artisanal sellers, now, [and] we’re creating this new generation of artisanal buyers where things like sourcing, packaging, carbon effects [and] labor force effects are affecting their affinity for a brand.”

Making these changes, however, is paramount in Portas’ eyes, even if consumers have to pay a bit more than they might be used to.

As she bluntly put it: “We’re not going to have a sodding planet.”

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.