According to new research from UK law firm TLT, sustainability is less important now than it was a year ago for a quarter (24%) of retailers, and 8% say it has fallen down the agenda “quickly”. 

As a result, a fifth (21%) say it is not currently important to their business, with 9% saying “not at all”. 

This is despite 78% of retailers saying their biggest motivation for sustainability is because it’s the right thing to do for the planet. Furthermore, two thirds (65%) say retailers can no longer afford to not be positioning themselves as sustainable. 

A great storm 

The report, Sustainability Matters – putting the ‘eco’ in retail economics, is based on a survey of the UK’s top 100 retailers and reveals the impact of the ‘great storm’ of issues retailers are facing following the pandemic. More than half (59%) of retailers admit sustainability has had to take a step back due to Covid-19, rising to two thirds (66%) of fashion and beauty retailers. 

As retailers continue to fight to keep shelves stocked and fulfil online orders during the supply chain crisis, 70% also say there is a risk that sustainability will fall down their list of priorities if the crisis continues, especially in the lead up to Christmas. 

Highlighting the need for sustainability to be embedded top-down in an organisation, only two fifths (40%) of retailers say the main person responsible for sustainability in their business has “significant” or “high” influence on company decisions and projects. 

Battle of the priorities 

Sustainability is also in a “battle of the priorities” with profit-making, with the vast majority (77%) of retailers saying their shareholders look at profits before sustainability, and 78% believing that sustainability will never be of equal importance to profit. 

44% of retailers admit their business sees sustainability more as a cost centre than a cost saver, despite sustainable initiatives – such as shared logistics – having the potential to improve efficiencies, reduce environmental impact and cut costs in the long-term. 

Safeguarding sustainability 

More than half (58%) of retailers say sustainability is important to their business, and 35% say it has risen up the agenda over the last year, while 60% say their approach to sustainability is becoming less organic and more strategic. 

Three quarters (72%) of retailers have announced sustainability improvements, a fifth (21%) are giving customers a choice between standard and sustainable deliveries, and 13% have launched a new line of sustainable products separate from their standard offering. 

19% of fashion and beauty and 13% of lifestyle and leisure retailers have also launched a rental or resale service – a move followed by FTSE retailer Marks & Spencer on 14 November. 

Perran Jervis, partner and head of retail and consumer goods at TLT, says: “Our research reveals just how vulnerable sustainability is to other priorities facing the retail sector at the moment. These other pressures – like the supply chain crisis and staff shortages – are likely to continue for some time, so there’s an urgent need to find a way of balancing these demands. 

“Retailers need to appoint people with the right expertise who can set the right strategy and oversee its implementation. They need to have credibility and a voice that is heard at the highest levels of the business. At the same time, this isn’t something that can fall to just one person or team. It needs to be part of how the business operates, and people need clear communication and support in their roles. 

“Simply put, sustainability cannot afford to lose this battle of the priorities to the extent that it has done for a quarter of retailers over the last year.” 

About the research

The research was designed and commissioned by TLT and conducted by GlobalData. GlobalData interviewed 100 leading UK retailers in October 2021. In all cases, interviews were carried out with senior management. The sample was representative of sectors within the retail space including: food and grocery; fashion and beauty; home sectors; and lifestyle and leisure.

Date published

06 December 2021



View all