Sustainable Brands 2016 San Diego Walmart Target retail trends

Like every Sustainable Brands Conference, there were too many issues, themes and streams for any one human to track. But in my dual role as a Sustainability Brand Consultant and volunteer SB2016 blogger, I worked double time to look for key breakout sessions, retail trends for 2016 and locally-brewed IPAs. The only thing I had to give up was sleep.

1) Putting the customer first with pre-competitive collaboration.

One of the most interesting sessions I covered was the Meeting of The Behemoths – Walmart and Target, discussing their shared initiative to improve the ingredients and sustainability of Beauty and Personal Care products. For retailers who are traditionally looking for any edge to get ahead, the idea of collaboration must have taken some getting used to. But the key here is that both companies profess to have similar goals in this area – namely, improved ingredients and transparency for their customers.

Sustainable beauty products goalsSo together Walmart and Target are working on priorities that (they say) are not that well-suited to building competitive advantage; such as improving the sustainability of chemical preservatives. They also wisely engaged the services of a moderating organization (Sally Uren of Forum for the Future) who, among other recommendations, ensured anti-trust lawyers were present throughout the process.

Look for more companies with shared goals to pool resources and solve sustainability issues before they take the gloves off for real.

2) The retail supply chain is the new activist.

One of two supply chain sessions I blogged for SB2016 focused on the work of The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), a ‘who’s who’ of big brands working together to set sustainability goals, standards and practices. So how would white bread brands like Walmart, Coca-Cola and P&G working together, move the green needle? Simply put: mainstream scale.

First, consider the staggering impacts of consumer goods: they are linked to more than 60% of greenhouse gas emissions, some two thirds of deforestation and 75% of forced and child labor issues.

TSC has been able to create a system of metrics that cover 80 – 90% of the impact of consumer goods supply chains, says Sheila Bonini, CEO, “If we can get what we’re doing right, the impact is enormous.”

The first TSC impact report looked at data across 140 billion dollars of consumer trade. With a common approach to measuring and tracking, they plan to increase the product sustainability of $1 Trillion of retail sales over the next five years.

That could represent a lot of positive change.


3) The business case for sustainability has been made, already – to the tune of a billion dollars.

On Tuesday, author Freya Williams introduced her book, Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability into Billion-Dollar Businesses, profiling global brands or divisions, based on sustainability principles, that generate more than $1Billion in revenue. (In fact, Nike’s FlyKnit technology, Ikea, GE, Toyota Prius, Tesla, Whole Foods, Unilever and Natura together represent $100 Billion in annual revenue!) Target’s Made to Matter selection also made the Billion Dollar Club, and sales of these products are growing at 1.5x the rate of traditional brands.

Whatever the product or category, one key factor was consistent – these brands represented mainstream sales. So when the CFO asks your retail team to ‘make the business case’ for integrating sustainability, ask her if she ever shops Nike, Unilever, Costco, Walmart, or IKEA. We’re all making the case for them.

4) Looking beyond social media success for purpose (and achieving social media success as a result!)

One of 2015’s most shared, talked-about and valuable campaigns was the #OptOutside initiative from mountain equipment cooperative, REI. This master stroke of retail bravery was based on a corporate decision to close all of their locations (and online sales) for Black Friday, to give all of their employees a paid day off to go outside.

According to REI’s Alex Thompson, #OptOutside was not conceived as a social media campaign. It was a business decision whose #1 measure of success was how employees would react to it.

The whole country reacted, with 33 days of media coverage and 7 billion media mentions (yes, billion with a ‘b’) Some 170 organizations followed suit, offering their own employees a get-out-of-shopping-free day.

To connect with values-driven consumers and their own core purpose, more and more retailers will be looking to make a genuine difference for their stakeholders first, and let the social media masses follow.

Lease your jeans

5) The future of retail may be to stop selling products altogether.

Admittedly, this is less of a trend than a bold future concept. But as the world tries to move toward a circular economy, the idea of selling product as a service may provide more secure, long-term profit. The poster child for this trend at SB2016 was Mud Jeans.

Mud customers LEASE their jeans, for €7.50 a month, and return them when the jeans are worn out, or when they just feel like they need a new pair.

Mud then repairs the jeans and sells them as vintage, or recycles them into new denim and/or yarn for cotton knit sweaters.

Vertical integration through recycling and reuse may start to make even more sense as carbon pricing and supply chain scrutiny increases.

As I mentioned, these ideas are just the tip of the Sustainable Brands iceberg. I would love to hear what you think the next retail sustainability trends will be, or better yet, discuss them in person. Maybe even at SB2017 in Detroit.

Oh, and speaking of those locally-brewed IPA’s, the Duet, From Alpine Brewing Company topped off the week nicely. Keep up the good work, Bobby!


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