Hayley Baines-Buffery of Bioregional explains why the British Retail Consortium’s Better Retail, Better World initiative won’t bring the systems-level change required
Many CEOs now speak “corporate responsibility” and many, if not most, large retailers have invested resources to build internal capacity on sustainability. It has become common for these companies to establish carbon-reduction targets, improve recycling rates and to address water risk and deforestation.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how the historic Paris Agreement on climate change or the United Nations’ wide-ranging Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could have been cemented without the support of business. However when it comes to now delivering progress against the SDGs, businesses – and retailers more specifically – have received some criticism that they are simply mapping current activities to the SDGs and cherry picking those that are easiest to report progress against.
More than 25 retailers have committed to take action against five of the SDGs, but this does not go far enough
As a response, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) initiative Better Retail, Better World has been set up to mobilise the retail industry to meet some of the global challenges highlighted by the SDGs. More than 25 retailers have committed to taking action against five of the 17 SDGs. However I fear that this does not go far enough and misses an opportunity to challenge retailers to start taking a more systems-based approach.
It is not clear how the BRC goals link to specific SDG targets and, in some instances, it feels like the goals have been misinterpreted. It is clearly important that the retail sector has committed to eliminating deforestation by 2030 – the BRC initiative links this to a commitment under Goal 13, yet the most relevant target actually sits under Goal 15 “life on land” (15.2 includes halting deforestation by 2020).
Without doubt, it is no easy task to get a group of large retailers to commit to addressing specific goals, but by making the industry goals so siloed it misses an opportunity to demonstrate how activities could, if undertaken in the right way, achieve a number of SDG targets.
I am hopeful that the BRC will refine its approach to addressing and reporting progress against the SDGs over time in a way that galvanises industry to take action above and beyond commitments in their existing sustainability programmes. In the meantime, how best to move forward given the breadth and ambition of the SDGs?
With 17 goals and 169 targets it is perhaps inevitable that different companies have focused more on some SDGs than others, dependent on where their various capabilities and capacities lie. However, as Cory Searcy, associate with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, recently pointed out for Sustainable Brands: “There are also SDGs that require action from all companies. SDG 12, which focuses on responsible consumption and production, is one.”
Business as usual would mean at least three times as much consumption of already overused resources
And we can use SDG 12 – which is one of the SDGs included in the BRC’s Better Retail, Better World initiative – as a lens through which to identify how companies can have an impact on other goals.
Just one example of a specific target within Goal 12 links to at least eight other goal areas:
Target 12.2 – ensuring sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources. By incorporating this target into every retail sustainability strategy and developing a comprehensive, systemic approach, retailers can help to deliver improvements against a number of other goals as illustrated here:
The other key issue highlighted by Goal 12 for retailers to consider making progress towards the SDGs is consumption. Technology and efficiency will help to keep pace with global consumption, but studies have shown it won’t be enough.
The WRI paper Elephant in the Boardroom presents a compelling case for why unchecked consumption is not an option in tomorrow’s markets. Most businesses’ growth is still predicated on more people buying more goods. The world will have more than 9 billion people by 2050, and the middle class will have swelled by 3 billion by 2030.
The rapid expansion of consumption-driven markets in the coming decades is the anticipated engine for continued business and economic growth. The problem is that the planet’s natural systems and finite resources cannot keep up. In fact, a continuation of business as usual would mean at least three times as much consumption of the planet’s already overused resources.
If we are to achieve a prosperous future within limits of the Earth’s resources, we need to unleash innovation
Given the pressures we are already placing on our planet, consuming three times as much as we do today is not an option. So if we are to achieve a prosperous future for all within the limits of the Earth’s resources, we need to start unleashing business innovation.
New business models that generate value through the use of fewer resources are emerging, but they are not yet mainstream. If retail businesses can start to open up the conversation internally about the need to tackle consumption, this will be a critical first step to improving practices and embracing the challenge of meeting growing consumer demand within environmental limits.
Here I have identified just a few new business models that companies should look to test, with a path towards transformation.
Ensuring products are durable, repairable and customers have easy access to repair services;
Building longer term relationships with customers can help to facilitate resource recovery, while made-to-order production minimises resource requirements;
Providing access to services rather than the product itself and expanding use of leasing models, for example MUD jeans, which leases pairs of jeans complete with free repair;
Sharing economy – using digital technology to create new relationships and business opportunities.
Adopting new business models will be vital to achieving a number of the SDGs, ensuring that we are able to sustain air, water and land resources and support human wellbeing.
I would ask where your business is in shifting to models that lead to a smarter use of resources
Taking the example of B&Q, a company that I have worked with for the past 10 years. Forty per cent of its revenue is now derived from sustainable home products, having risen from 9.5% of sales 10 years ago. Bioregional worked with B&Q to develop sustainability criteria for its product ranges and in 2010 this was further expanded to cover all companies across Kingfisher, B&Q’s parent company, the largest home-improvement retailer in Europe. We update the guidelines annually to ensure Kingfisher maintains a robust approach to classifying sustainable home products, taking into consideration recent legislation and innovation.
Elsewhere, we have recently developed sustainable buying criteria for Innocent drinks to equip more than 300 staff across nine countries with clear guidelines to ensure all its products and materials are sourced sustainably across its decentralised buying operations.
These are just two examples of companies adopting new ways of doing business to safeguard our planet and futureproof their business in response to the challenges set by the SDGs. I would ask you to consider where your business is in both improving the sustainability of the products you make and shifting to business models that lead to a smarter use of resources while still creating value to your business and customers.
Hayley Baines-Buffery is head of sustainable business at Bioregional and leads on the development and implementation of long-term corporate sustainability programmes in the retail, manufacturing and built environment sectors. For further information on how your business can start to think about new business models, read Bioregional’s guide to the circular economy: Cracking the circular challenge.
Bioregional is co-chair of the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development, which is holding an event in London on 20 November about the action needed to achieve goal 12 of the SDGs, Transforming Consumption.
circular economy Paris Agreement SDG 12 British Retail Consortium B&Q