Is Sustainability the Latest Retail Marketing Fad?

Is Sustainability the Latest Retail Marketing Fad?

Share this:

While countries like France are laying down the law regarding sustainability in fashion, retailers across the U.S. are preparing to capitalize on consumer interest in eco-friendliness as a marketing tactic.

The idea that fashion should be sustainable is one that’s been around for a while. Environmental activists, laborers, and independent brands appeared to begin making headway in changing the way retailers did business around 2019, but then the pandemic took hold in 2020, and all bets were off. Retailers dealing with supply chain issues and labor shortages had no time for implementing sustainable business practices, and the issue moved to the back burner.

Now, three years later, sustainability is once again at the forefront of consumers’ minds. Retailers watching the trend are looking at how they can use sustainability as a marketing strategy.

An overwhelming amount of products — roughly 5 billion pounds worth — end up in landfills each year. As brands figure out what to do about that problem, and how to lower their carbon emissions, they’ve stumbled onto a marketing tactic that stands poised to move into the mainstream.

“Sustainability in retail is overarchingly vague because there are no standards being enforced with no line in the sand as [to] how big of an impact needs to be made,” says Spencer Kieboom, founder and CEO of Pollen Returns, a pick-up service for e-commerce businesses.

To Kieboom’s point, there is no standard metric for what constitutes sustainability in retail. Terms like eco-friendliness and consciousness are batted around with no real definition. How much does a retailer need to lower its water use to be considered sustainable? Is changing light bulbs in a department store from fluorescent to LED a sustainable move, or just a cost saving measure?

“The question is posed because sustainability has intrinsically become a buzzword through the grooming of educational knowledge shed throughout the course of a person’s life,” Kieboom says. 

The fashion industry accounts for an estimated one-tenth of carbon dioxide emissions, and generates an estimated 20% of global wastewater. In France, lawmakers are taking a look at the issue and calling for sustainability legislation that would require climate impact labels on certain items of clothing.

Marketing Sustainability

In the U.S., retailers have significantly more flexibility in how they market their sustainable business practices. Kieboom suggests companies promote their eco-friendly practices in marketing materials and advertising campaigns. He points to outdoor retailers like Patagonia and REI as having done an especially impressive job integrating sustainable practices into their consumer marketing initiatives.

“The outdoor retail market as a whole has laid a nice foundation,” Kieboom says. “Companies like Patagonia and REI [are] vocalizing their vision, while also providing impactful programs and data to back the initial success.”

According to Deloitte’s Global State of the Consumer Tracker, 79% of executives see the world at a tipping point for responding to climate change, and 88% believe that with immediate action, the worst impacts of climate change can be limited. To that end, Deloitte found that 71% of retailers have started using more sustainable materials in their products, and 56% have developed new climate-friendly products or services.

Pushback from Advocacy Groups

Environmental activists say there isn’t enough being done to support sustainability in retail. They’ve even created a term for when brands use vague marketing lingo to promote their sustainable practices — greenwashing.

As demand for eco-friendly products has grown, it’s gotten harder to go into a store without seeing products designated as “green” or “sustainable.” However, Kieboom doesn’t necessarily see that as a negative. With time, and with an additional push from consumers, he sees retailers continuing to improve their environmental practices as a way to meet customer demand and give shoppers more of what they want.

“Retailers have all shared their promises to a more sustainable future or ‘net-zero,’ but the glitter has worn off to the consumer,” Kieboom says. “We live during a time where knowledge is craved and access is at the tip of our fingers through our phones — quantify the impact for the consumer to digest, be proactive — mitigate with better planning, and be transparent — if you aren’t achieving the goals set forth then share with your consumers what you learned and what is next.”

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.