As an industry we have now navigated peak period, but it’s worth reflecting that a key part of it – Black Friday and the accompanying cyber weekend – adopted a slightly different colour this time. 

There were still lots of retailers participating in the event, capitalising on what has become a time when consumers are willing to spend. And rightly so – it has turned into a lucrative part of the year for many businesses. 

But there were several retailers that took an alternative approach. 

There has been growing momentum behind the ‘Green Friday’ movement, with a small but rising percentage of retailers opting not to slash prices and use the period to make an environmental stand instead.

Retailers such as Sofology, which a couple of years ago turned Black Friday green by committing to plant trees on behalf of customers who purchased from them on Black Friday. That promise has now been extended all-year round. 

Meanwhile, Patagonia and fashion designer Raeburn take an environmental activist stance to the sales weekend. A few years back Patagonia donated all its $10 million global takings from Black Friday to non-profit organisations helping the planet, while this year Raeburn switched its eCommerce function off on Black Friday. 

The fashion brand focused only on selling second-hand goods in its London store, in partnership with second-hand clothing platform Responsible, to encourage more circular consumerism. 

In the wake of COP26 and consumer demand, the focus on the environment in retail is only set to grow – and it is set to become a daily consideration for those operating in the industry.

Green schemes 

So let us forget Black Friday for a minute and think green everyday – because that is the way forward as retail faces up to wider society’s net zero challenge. 

Sweaty Betty and Joules are two examples of retailers with take-back schemes in their stores, where consumers are encouraged to deposit old clothing that can be recycled, reused, or repurposed. In the case of some retailers, including Sweaty Betty, they provide customers with money off the next purchase in return for donated items. 

Additionally, supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Co-op are ramping up the number of collection points placed in their stores to collect difficult-to-recycle plastics. Material such as clingfilm, crisp packets and chocolate wrappers is being collected before the retailers work with their partners to ensure it is disposed of responsibly or recycled. 

Everywhere you look in retail, these days, there is a green scheme. For some it is a small but growing part of their overall operations, but for others – like Lush and Superdry – it is becoming a central part of their proposition and marketing message. 

Encouragingly, the BRC announced in November it had joined forces with trade bodies in the property sector to reduce the environmental impact of real estate. The ‘Retailer/Landlord Net Zero Building Protocol’ aims to set high standards of sustainability between retailers and property owners, with a strong focus on energy efficiency and embracing renewable energy. 

All of this constitutes a really positive direction of travel, but what is in store in the years ahead?

An environmental awakening

The environmental awakening in retail has only just got under way – there is a long journey ahead for the industry. It could manifest itself in several different ways. 

In some cases, we could see shops redesigned, with half the space dedicated to goods going out and the other half reserved for taking back consumers’ returned pre-loved items and used packaging. 

The rise of rental in retail shows no sign of slowing down either, meaning more recognisable high street brands will follow this trend and need to shape their stores accordingly. 

Circular actions like these and new consumer behaviours will need to be managed with new solutions. 

It is great to see the plethora of new tech ideas emerging to address the climate crisis and help businesses reduce their environmental footprint. But there are also some existing solutions to support the retail industry in its quest. 

Retailers that have spent the last few years finetuning store-based online fulfilment and returns systems will be in a good position to adapt to include product and packaging take-back programmes. Those invested in smart locker networks are well placed too. 

Smart lockers in or just outside shops are a great way of giving consumers a quick and efficient way of picking up or returning online orders, and with some repurposing they can also support companies as they ramp up take-back, recycling, or rental schemes. 

Well-positioned smart lockers allowing consumers to use them as part of their normal working day or commute also tick the convenience box for customers – while reducing the need for carbon-emitting home delivery vans to clog up residential roads. 

Whatever the future of retail, all the indications are it will be more sustainable. Public pressure – and eventually government regulation – will demand it. 

My new year’s wish for the industry is to see some creative thinking, and for retailers to use their stores in new ways to improve their carbon footprint and support their increasingly vital green agenda practices and processes. 

How are you shaping your stores to be more sustainable? 

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