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Retailers rally behind sustainable industry targets

Drapers speaks to retailers about the British Retail Consortium’s drive to make the retail industry more sustainable by 2030.

Fairtrade cotton 8

A Fairtrade cotton worker

In the past, being eco-friendly and sustainable was not a priority for retailers.

But now, in an age of plastic bag charges, reusable bottles and solar panels, it is a very different story. Sustainability is part of contemporary culture. Governments and society actively encourage and incentivise businesses to go green and ensure sustainable growth and development.

As consumers become more aware of the journey behind the clothes they wear, companies are compelled to be more transparent about the story of their products – from conception, manufacturing and production right up to when it is put on the shelf for purchase. 

On 13 March, 25 British companies backed sustainability across their businesses by signing up to the British Retail Consortium’s Better Retail Better World initiative in a bid to address modern slavery, inequality and climate change, and encourage sustainable economic growth and responsible consumption and production.

The pledge guarantees they will maintain human rights and ethical practice in their supply chains, disclose their support for underrepresented demographics across their businesses, disclose their climate changes risks and vulnerabilities, progress towards responsible sourcing practices and increase their use of renewable energy.

But with the industry under a microscope, how are companies adhering to these pledges, and do they believe it will have a long-lasting impact across the fashion retail sector?

Using the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for the pledges, many fashion retailers have been among the first to sign up and endorse the scheme.

Patrick Birkbeck, managing director of Scottish retailer House of Bruar said: “When you look into the detail, the guidelines, the principles of the pledges, you would struggle to disagree with any of them. Some are not easy to put into practice and some are not relevant to our business, but the majority are just very good practices for a reasonable retailer or employer.”

Geoff van Sonsbeeck, co-founder and CEO of retail company The Baukjen Group said: “Sustainability and the BRC’s campaign are at the heart of our DNA, and embedded within our ethos and company culture. The campaign is at the heart of what we believe in, so it was a natural step for us to be a part of. We have pulled together a task force and are working through our strategy right now. However, at present this is very much work in progress.”


New community

Retailers have shown enthusiasm for the community of retailers created by the scheme, which aims to create change across the sector rather than having a microcosmic focus on individual businesses.

BRC head of sustainability Peter Andrews said: “It was decided that we would focus on the goals and areas where the retail industry had the largest impact and therefore had the greatest ability to influence positive change.”

Changes with supply chains will be easier when multiple retailers are asking for the same ethical practices

Carmel McQuaid, Marks & Spencer

Director of technology and supply chain for Debenhams Angela Morrison said: “Our commitment to the BRC pledge means that we are putting ourselves forward to state that we believe in delivering better retail and being more transparent and proactive in our sharing of the work that we are doing to each of the pillars of the pledge.”

Marks & Spencer’s head of sustainable business Carmel McQuaid agreed the sharing of information was beneficial for the industry as a whole: “It is great that the BRC initiative signatories are committed to a greater degree of sharing and collaboration. We will be able to get more traction with others joining in. For instance, changes with supply chains will be easier when multiple retailers are asking for the same ethical practices.

“It means a lot that the industry comes together and collaborates on issues like this. There are so many areas where we compete, but on issues that matter from a fairness and sustainability point of view, we can only drive the change we want to see by working together. It is not always easy to do that, so we commend the BRC for the work they have done in pulling together and getting so many members signed up already and we look forward to playing our part in it.”

M&S, like many retailers, has its own sustainability practices in place. It launched its Plan A scheme 11 years ago. It was initailly intended to be a five-year sustainable business programme addressing environmental, social and ethical challenges facing the business, but M&S believes the main challenges have involved scaling up the commitments.

McQuaid said: “The greatest challenge is when you try to go to scale. It is relatively simple to establish the pilot project, but when you try to scale that up from a small range of clothing to all stores nationally, that is when you face challenges, because you segregate supply chains. This area took time to identify product sourcing from whether it is from sustainable timber, sustainable cotton, sustainable palm oil – it is quite a slow burn.”

We see this as the beginning of a journey

Alison Ellison, BRC

Although many businesses intend to overhaul sustainability practices to ensure optimal performance, scalability and benchmarking are fundamental stumbling blocks for retailers.

Transparency and benchmarking have been a priority of the initiative. Reports will be compiled by the BRC in 2020 to create industry benchmarks for retailers to use and set targets against. 

The head of environmental policy for the BRC, Alison Ellison, said: “Everyone involved signs up to the reporting requirements, too. We see this as the beginning of a journey, which is why the targets take us to 2020. Then we will review and refresh for another two to three years and so on, but the idea is that we can take signatories with us and the ambition increases the closer we get to 2030.”

Debenhams director of technology and supply chain Angela Morrison said: “Our commitment to the BRC pledge means that we are putting ourselves forward to state that we believe in delivering better retail and being more transparent and proactive in our sharing of the work that we are doing to each of the pillars of the pledge.”

The BRC is not the only corporation seeking to address sustainability across the British fashion industry.

It was announced on 27 March that brands including Kering and H&M have joined forces on the first intiative guide on sustainablity for CEOs. From non-profit forum Global Fashion Agenda, it is aimed at creating a sustainable fashion industry.

The CEO Agenda is a guide for fashion retail CEOs to grow sustainable and responsible retailing within their business and future-proof the company, “because sustainability is no longer just a trend, it’s a business imperative.”

It outlines seven priorities that should be at the top of the mind of any fashion CEO. Three key priorities for immediate change are: supply chain traceability; efficient use of water, energy and chemicals; and respectful and secure work environments. The remaining four transformational priorities for longer-term impact are: sustainable material mix; closed-loop fashion systems; promotion of better wage systems; and, fourth, “industrial revolution” – digitalisation and working with governments and other retailers to accommodate changes in the workforce.

Global Fashion Agenda CEO Eva Kruse said: “It takes a co-ordinated effort to move the needle on sustainability, which is why this agenda for a common industry focus holds the potential to be a major breakthrough.

”Fashion is one of the largest industries in the world, but also one of the most resource and labour intensive. The environmental, social and ethical challenges the industry faces today are not only a threat to the planet, but also a threat to the industry itself. That’s why there’s no alternative but for sustainability to become an integral part of any company’s business strategy.”


The Drapers Verdict

Sustainability is a key priority for the retail industry going forward and those who refuse to adapt are likely to face backlash from consumers, competitors and the government. Initiatives such as the BRC’s pledges can help businesses to actively push towards fair practice and responsible retailing. Although initial costs will often be incurred the market for irreverence towards the ethics behind goods and services is diminishing and businesses that do not accept that will most likely be fighting losing battle. 


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