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Why retailers going ‘green’ is a double-edged sword

With The Warehouse Group becoming the third major retailer in the world to become carbon neutral, H&M’s sustainability push and many other moves abroad, retailers are slowly becoming more ‘woke’ when it comes to environmental issues. But while many are applauding one of the worst offending industry’s moves to become more conscious, it also holds their processes up to even more scrutiny – such as whether they’re just ‘greenwashing’. NZ Retail and The Register deputy editor Courtney Devereux explores the implications.

Consumers are becoming more conscious in the way their daily habits contribute to the environment, and this type of conscious consumer has introduced a new wave of businesses looking to work and appear green to win over favour of customers.

This is a smart move by businesses, considering the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand report, which studied attitudes and buying behaviour in Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, the UK and USA, found 65 percent of respondents had taken a decision not to buy a brand because it had stayed silent on an issue that it was felt there was an obligation to address.

The problems the retail industry battles when it comes to the environment have been at the forefront of conversation for some time, particularly in the fast fashion industry, so moves by incumbents towards sustainable practices should be welcomed by all.

But with this new ‘green’ image being touted by retailers comes the question – are these businesses are taking a moral stand because they believe in the change and helping the environment, or are they simply pandering to the new conscious consumer? If so, is the latter technically even a bad thing?

There is, unfortunately, no business without profit. Already, brands are careful not to make changes that may put off consumers or lessen convenience. Any risk of losing business is sometimes more pressing than a business’ moral standing or carbon footprint. We see this more in the large businesses – ones that are concerned any bold changes or movements will alienate some of their customer base.

This also means a lot of local and international businesses may act the part and put on a proactive front, (see: green-washing) giving off the impression of being sustainable to the consumer, all while backdoor operations are wasting resources and potentially damaging the environment and communities where their products are being manufactured.

This can mean businesses seem more environmentally conscious than they actually are, which also allows them to keep a level of unsustainable convenience for customers, such as offering plastic bags, shipping freight and sending old items to landfill, while people think they’re green due to promoting basic recycling methods or using sustainable cotton in very few items. 

Take H&M, the Swedish clothing retailer has made a massive push towards sustainability, partnering with The Global Fashion Agenda which presents sustainability priorities for fashion businesses because "sustainability is no longer just a trend, it’s a business imperative," it said in a statement.

The retailer also publishes its sustainability report each year and promotes recycled clothing be returned to cultivate a more circular economy when it comes to its clothes.

But positioning fast fashion brands as sustainability champions completely overlooks the rampant overproduction upon which these brands have built their businesses – and continue to operate.

Companies such as H&M and even Zara are sitting on billion dollars work of stock while H&M was even accused of destroying 60 tonnes worth of unworn clothes. The company’s rebuttal was that the clothes were infested with mould.

Closer to home, The Warehouse Group recently announced plans to become carbon neutral. The group is officially carbon neutral through the carboNZeroCeTM certification.

In layman’s terms, the carbon that is offset buy TWG production in China, India and Bangladesh will be supported by native forest regeneration through the planting of around 2.7 million trees.

CEO Nick Grayston said the company are wanting to take responsibility for its impact on the environment.

“While the initial offsetting of our emissions is through investment in ‘gold standard’ international credits, our main focus is reducing emissions in our operations and native forest regeneration, which will ensure future carbon credits as trees mature.”

It is undeniable that this is a fantastic move for TWG – it shows support for our environments, our community and our native trees. But the issue arises with how quickly TWG can reduce emissions, with its current goal being a decrease of 32 percent by 2030. In the meantime, it will offset what it’s already putting out with carbon credits.

The carbon trading system works by allowing carbon-reducing industries to accumulate credits which they can sell as carbon offsets to businesses, which either voluntarily want to reduce emissions or whose regulator caps require emission reductions.

Or they can plant trees and switch to cleaner energy, which in turn, gives them credits to use for their own production or sell on.

The problem with this, however, is that the polluting industries are still not reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. And in the meantime, as they continue to plant native trees and preach these wins to the local consumer, international operations and resources will continue at the same rapid pace of retail.

Retail businesses becoming ‘green’ will always be a double-edged sword. One part of the company will be wanting to win over conscious consumers by going green, while another part will want to stay hush-hush about the impact of its operations on global warming.

This video on climate change from 2010 explains the issue of carbon offsets – the factories that produce consumer goods, the freight that delivers it and the buildings we operate from always produce more carbon than can be offset by planting trees. You can also check out this carbon clock on Bloomberg here.

It is easy to sit back and berate a company for not doing enough when we don’t know the full picture. Yet in saying that, it also makes it easier for businesses to put on a conscious front solely for reputation, rather than actually integrating those values into their practices.

One thing’s for sure – solving the retail sector’s sustainability issues will always be an ongoing process. But it is up to businesses to truly front these values, no matter the effect on monetary gain.

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