We’re running a series of pieces exploring predictions for how multichannel and ecommerce retail might change over the coming year. Today we consider sustainability. This has moved into the spotlight over the past year as the fast rise of climate activism has put environmental issues firmly onto the retail agenda

THE GROWTH OF SUSTAINABILITY

“Sustainability will be a growing concern for both retailers and consumers in 2020. For retailers, the aim will be both ethical and practical – as more sustainable operations will also be more efficient. For example, many stores have to leave lights on overnight for cleaning and maintenance staff. Connected sensors in stores can automatically turn off lighting in areas where it isn’t needed – reducing energy use without leaving staff in the dark – and activate alarms to ensure unauthorised personnel do not enter. Machine learning can automate and optimise supply chains to make them as efficient as possible – for instance by identifying routes that use more energy for no gain. And immersive technologies such as Augmented Reality can remove the need to create and transport sample goods, instead allowing buyers to examine them in a virtual showroom.

“Consumers are also demanding more proof that goods they buy are sustainable and ethically sourced. Retailers can use technology such as the blockchain to create a full, audited history of specific products, from where the raw materials are gathered to the final package on the shelf – including evidence that its supply chain is 100 percent sustainable and ethical. QR codes on packaging can then combine with mobile apps to give customers access to that history, and the proof they demand.”

SUSTAINABILITY AS A SELLING POINT

This year we have seen the growth of Extinction Rebellion, the rise of the extraordinary Greta Thunberg, and public opinion turn firmly against single-use plastics. Many brands have responded with ambitious sustainability pledges, while retailers such as Waitrose have launched packaging-free initiatives to great fanfare. Sustainability will be an equally hot focus for brands in 2020 – and given that 87% of shoppers say they would purchase a product because the selling company promoted a cause they cared about, who can blame them?

One organisation to watch is Terracycle, and its service Loop, a remarkable, first-of-its-kind circular economy scheme. Customers can purchase branded products online through the Loop Store or partner retailers, paying a deposit for reusable containers. Goods are shipped to consumers in a reusable tote bag, which they refill with the empty packaging after use. The totes are then collected by a courier, which returns the packaging so it can be refilled, and the cycle can begin again.

One important thing is that Loop doesn’t compromise on customer experience with its packaging choices, which brands are already finding highly appealing. And what Loop is doing is just the tip of the iceberg for new sustainability drives. Retailers’ back office and operational sustainability efforts are sure to become yet more comprehensive next year, and these efforts will be used in consumer-facing comms and marketing, too.

Read the rest of Alex Rohloff’s article at Internet Retailing