A low-carbon retail future

As published in The Herald newspaper on Friday 12 November 2021


COP26 is almost behind us. It’s been exhilarating to see so many countries come together in Glasgow to deliver tangible progress and momentum towards tackling climate change. The attention will now rightly turn from the lofty rhetoric and fresh commitments made in Scotland’s largest city to what each of us must do going forward.

For retailers the route forward is clear - we must continue to build the low-carbon retail industry of tomorrow, regardless of the myriad immediate pressures facing the sector today.

Imagine for a moment a future where the environmental impact of every purchase is calculated for us at the point of sale. A future where our receipt offers us not only the financial cost of our purchases but its carbon footprint as well. Where we recycle much more alongside our old clothes and glass bottles? Where we repair our broken down electronics rather than replace them? Where waste is frowned upon and packaging is shunned?

We’re not there yet, but retailers are already making strides on many of these ideas and others, offering refill zones and more. The speed of change in retail remains breakneck, but it is essential that stores continue to respond to customer demands for more ethical and sustainable goods.

Twelve months ago retailers came together under the banner of the retail consortium’s ‘Climate Action Roadmap’, with the aim of making the industry and its supply chains carbon neutral by 2040. Given retail and consumers account for a sizeable slice of all carbon emissions, there is both a huge opportunity and massive responsibility on the industry to act. It will require action from retailers, suppliers, employees, and customers.

Twelve months on and today 80 leading retail brands – including the likes of Schuh, Scotmid, and TKMaxx – have not only committed collectively to putting climate action at the heart of their decision making, but have started out on the journey to achieving it. It won’t be easy, especially as these firms have pledged to decarbonise stores by 2030, deliveries and logistics by 2035, and products by 2040, whilst helping customers to live low-carbon lifestyles.

As the industry’s trade body we’ve spent the past year ensuring these firms have the tools they need. We formed a task force under the leadership of the head of the Co-op to drive progress and benchmarking performance against the highest standards; published detailed guidance for retailers on achieving net-zero vehicle logistics and on helping customers to live low carbon lifestyles; and held workshops offering practical assistance on sustainable sourcing, green data and technology, and decarbonising store estates.

Retail is taking its responsibilities seriously. Even before the industry roadmap, it led the way, reducing the environmental impact of its own operations and supporting improvements in the supply chain and with customers. Examples include eliminating microplastics, cutting water usage, removing packaging, refitting stores to be more energy-efficient, and working constructively to implement a deposit return system for drinks containers. Earlier this year we reported how retailers have already cut greenhouse gas emissions by 49% since 2005.

From our research shoppers tell us they want brands to help them make better choices and to live sustainably, and are prepared to back their ethics with their custom.

Changing the way we operate is never easy, it will require huge investments of time and money and a supportive framework from the government. Ultimately however it makes good business sense. Retailers see themselves as part of the solution and are determined to use the next two decades to bring about the zero-carbon future we all want and need.

By David Lonsdale, Director, Scottish Retail Consortium