This piece originally appeared in the September 2020 Issue of NACS Magazine and is republished with permission
Retailers have so much to focus on these days since the pandemic has created new priorities, why should they be focusing on sustainability?
We’d like to challenge retailers to think of sustainability not as its own bucket but as part of a problem-solving mindset that will put them in the best position for success, both during and after the pandemic. Sustainable business practices create long-term value and help retailers thrive as consumer behavior shifts rapidly.
We are finding retailers that champion sustainability experience measurable increases across several key business metrics. Across the sustainability programs we manage for retailers, we’re seeing increases in:
- Brand Loyalty: NPS scores increased >10 points
- Engagement: Website sessions up 63%
- Sales: 4.4% outperform (client volume vs. OPIS market)
Incorporating sustainability practices is a way for retailers to reassure customers that their health and well-being are not just temporary concerns. Retailers can demonstrate they are actively doing their part to improve the lives of their employees, consumers and their communities—not just now but for the future.
In many ways, sustainability has been catalyzed by recent events, is that right?
Yes! A growing body of research shows an accelerated shift in consumer behavior toward sustainability. While these shifts aren’t new, what’s surprising is the scale and pace—compressed into a matter of weeks are big changes that would likely have taken years. A global study by Accenture discovered specific consumer behavior changes resulting from the pandemic, including:
- 64% focusing more on limiting food waste
- 45% making more sustainable choices when shopping.
We also see these behavior shifts toward sustainability, with consumers spending more on seeds for home gardens and baby chicks for fresh eggs, and an increased enthusiasm for hiking, camping, biking, kayaking and appreciating the outdoors.
Just as with COVID-19, the dangers of climate change are invisible, and the consequences sometimes can feel distant. We need solidarity in small behavioral changes today to prevent troubling outcomes in the future. But instead, for short-term safety reasons, there has been a rollback on plastic bag restrictions, higher consumption of single-use plastics and a reduction in carpooling and public transit.
Retailers can and should reduce the disconnect between institutional action and consumer preference for sustainability. And they can gain business in the process—roughly 9 in 10 consumers stay loyal to brands that share their values.
So, what can convenience retailers actively do to show they are supportive and committed to sustainability?
Where a retailer is on their sustainability journey will dictate the most appropriate actions, but here are three things most retailers can incorporate:
- Make it relevant: In the sustainability industry this is called materiality. Address what is most relevant to you and your customers. This can be done through a series of formal surveys or even through social media polls for an instant pulse check.
- Build awareness: Your customers won’t know what you’re doing unless you tell them. Promote sustainability efforts, including positive impact metrics generated, at the forecourt. Sustainably marketed products grew 7.1x faster than conventionally marketed products and continue to grow despite COVID-19, according to an NYU Center for Sustainable Business study.
- Tout community support and partnerships: Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, reported a 98% increase in demand due to the pandemic. Consumers want to do business with brands that have proven themselves to be good corporate citizens. Retailers can illustrate their commitment through partnerships with local nonprofits.
Single-Use packaging has returned due to safety reasons, bringing extra waste. How can retailers still be sustainable?
The pandemic is unleashing a tidal wave of plastic waste. Retailers can still be sustainable if they are able to adopt one or all of the following:
- Explore compostable/biodegradable alternatives to replace plastic items, especially cutlery and straws.
- Reuse/recycle: Bring any current recycling efforts to the forefront with simple and clear consumer education. (Even if retailers are already recycling, now is the perfect time to make sure consumers are aware, making it easier for them to reduce what ends up in a landfill.)
- Offset: Retailers can implement plastic offsets immediately without supply chain or operational disruptions. Through plastic collection credits, plastic waste is removed from the environment proportionate to what is sold, resulting in a net-neutral or net-negative impact.
The world changed overnight. And now it’s not just about returning to normal, but returning to better. Retailers have an opportunity to appeal to consumers’ shifting desires by weaving in long-range, sustainable strategies that align with customer behaviors. Messages should be clear and express the shared values between retailer and consumer. There’s mounting evidence that we could be returning to a healthier world in the wake of coronavirus, and retailers can reset, rebound and do well by doing good!