Advice from retailers on sustainability

13 Nov 2018

With the United Nations calling for urgent change and warning that the earth has just 12 years until major climate change catastrophe, businesses are now realizing they have a duty to go green. However, lowering your emissions or changing a store and its products to become more environmentally friendly and sustainable aren’t things that will happen overnight.

Appear Here caught up with Emily Mathieson, founder of Arerende — an online store selling products made by those facing social challenges — and Brendan Murdock, the founder of anatomē — a Shoreditch-based wellness shop selling everything from vitamins to essential oils — to get tips on how retailers can succeed in making their business more environmentally friendly. The pair’s answers may just change your entire approach to being a retailer.

Brendan at Anatome's store ©Appear Here

What would you say are some of the simplest steps a shopkeeper could take to ensure their store is more sustainable?

Brendan: Everything is in glass across our product ranges. We made that decision so there’s no plastic waste. Our products also only have natural ingredients, while the supply chain is eco-friendly due to only using a hand filling process. This means there’s no wastage whatsoever.

Emily: It’s the little things that make a big difference, like how we make sure that when we gift wrap an item, it’s in compostable packaging. When we had our pop-up store, we had a special recyclable window film and recyclable plastic, and we also encouraged customers not to take a bag. I guess retailers need to realize that it isn’t expensive to go greener — if anything, it’s a cost-effective measure for your business.

Aerende ©Appear Here

But it must be difficult making a supply chain greener?

Emily: Not really. It’s as easy as making sure all your products are sourced from the UK and that there’s no mass production, which obviously has a really significant impact on the environment. The impact of shipping a product from another country is also very damaging; you have direct pollution in the sea, but also emissions and oil consumption. You need to look at your business model and try to ensure as many of your products as possible are being made close to home.

Brendan: It’s about focusing on researching supply chains and establishing a niche one for yourself. This means you can be more nimble and intuitive when it comes to the environment. It allows you to control your labels and glass bottles — but also what's in them. If you work with big manufacturers, not only is it bad for the environment, but you’re also surrendering a lot of control.

Anatome ©Appear Here

It sounds like transparency is also key. That you need to be honest with your customers about the progress you’re making.

Emily: I would agree with that. You need to have an open dialogue so a customer can inquire about the progress you’re making. There’s definitely a trend of big companies giving off the image of achieving sustainability, yet operating a supply chain that’s anything but sustainable. The public are more engaged in this stuff now and will call you out if you're bullshitting. Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, said in his annual letter to investors that he won’t be encouraging investment in companies that don’t have sustainable values, and I found that to be so telling of how things have changed on a corporate level. While it’s better to be doing something around waste than nothing at all, you can’t just pay lip service to sustainability. Saying you’ll reduce single-use plastic in five years time isn’t good enough. You need to take action now as your customers won’t wait five years.

Brendan: In the cosmetics industry, every ingredient is traceable as there’s full transparency on the packaging. If you put something nasty in there, then people will realize, so you can’t cut corners. Equally, you have to be realistic about being more eco-friendly too. Sure, sourcing lavender from the Himalayas would be great, but is it feasible or affordable? You need to do the best you can to be green on your budget. The next step for us will be trying to bring back our glass packaging into the supply chain so that when people are done with their products, we sterilize their bottle and re-use it for something else. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting close.

Emily at Aerende's store ©Appear Here

Outside of your own business, would you say there are other retail brands that retailers can learn from in terms of going greener?

Emily: In fashion, what Reformation is doing is amazing around offering sustainably produced clothing. Their slogan is that “Being naked is the most sustainable option, we are number two” — that’s what you need to aim for. It’s also about making products with your own hands. We tend to wrongly think of artisanal as something that’s trendy, but if you make something with hands instead of powering a machine, then it makes a big difference. It’s great Nike is working with Colin Kaepernick, for example, but has it stopped exploiting people of color by making them work in sweatshops? I guess you need to make sure your production process behind the scenes aligns with your public values. If not, the customer will figure you out.