My father immigrated to Canada in the dead of winter dressed in every piece of clothing he owned. Growing up, I watched him build a mini-empire of denim stores that expanded across Eastern Canada and successfully provided for our family.
I learned a lot about retail from my father — you could say it’s even in my DNA.
But while success for his generation meant expansion and profit, I’ve realized that outlook is now a liability for the future of the industry I love.
With climate change on our radar more than ever, retail is under scrutiny for its contributions to carbon emissions, water pollution and waste in its drive to inspire relentless consumption. And while many heavy-polluting industries, such as air travel and oil, have publicly committed to change, retail has been slower — and in some ways less united — in taking steps toward true sustainability.
Sure, many individual retailers offer sustainable product lines or take steps to decrease the impact of manufacturing and production, but making retail truly sustainable will take major change, industry-wide.
As the CEO of an e-commerce agency, I realize the scope of the challenge ahead of us, as well as my own culpability in retail’s climate impact. But the fact is, as governments implement tighter regulations, investors pull out of polluting industries and consumers call on companies to make serious improvements, we’ll need to do better.
Retail must change, or it risks becoming the next industry to be widely regarded as a climate criminal.
Sustaining profits on the path to change
When it comes to retail and sustainability, there exists an unavoidable paradox: the industry depends on getting people to buy more and more. Is there any hope for the industry to thrive in a world that must consume less?
Surprisingly, many signs point to yes — the clearest being the purchasing habits of a new generation of consumers. In the United States, Gen Z holds more than $500 billion in buying power, quickly overtaking the baby boomers as the primary consumer group. And studies have found a significant majority of young adults are willing to pay more for sustainable products.