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Sustainable shopping: Why retailers must go all in on green

How retailers and omnichannel brands can integrate sustainability across the supply chain and at multiple consumer touch points in a way that is authentic, and translates into a brand advantage.

By Subarna Ganguly, Staff Writer

Last updated June 30, 2023

According to researchers from the National Retail Federation, half of all shoppers will pay extra for a product that’s greener than its competitors. Let that sink in for a moment: a differentiator that allows you to charge more for a product otherwise equivalent to your competitors’.

But there’s a catch. When it comes to marketing their products as sustainable, brands must be wary that they don’t fall into the ‘greenwashing’ category—sustainability marketing that consumers suspect of being all talk, with no action to back it up. For many consumers, greenwashing isn’t something brands can come back from. In fact, over three quarters of consumers say they will cut off a business with a company they catch mistreating the environment, especially if they’re claiming the contrary.

So how can brands and retailers show their green credentials in a way that’s authentic and convincing, rather than just an empty retail trend, at every point in the omnichannel consumer journey? And how can they translate that not just into greater sustainability but also into a brand advantage?

Less talk, more action

Brands that live out their green values rather than just talking about them are taking a positive step. This has its own challenge though, that of demonstrating sustainability action to customers.

The use of science-based targets is a boon here. It makes companies’ sustainability efforts real for consumers and when a brand’s progress is tracked and verified by an external agency, the findings are hard to dispute. For instance, the Dutch NGO Smart Freight Canter is a highly regarded agency used to set science-based targets for the decarbonisation of logistics networks.

A fashion retailer could work with the circular fashion scheme run by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to develop new measurable sustainability initiatives. Also, in the fashion industry, another option could be to improve the sustainability of materials—eighty one per cent of shoppers say they want to buy from sustainable brands. Making this action visible to consumers is key here.

Once a company has proof of supply chain transparency, its accreditations, and its measurements against key sustainability KPIs, this is a great time to start including them in communications materials.

Businesses should consider building sustainability messaging into every stage of the customer journey. This could be as simple as including a line about, for instance, logistics sustainability in a delivery confirmation email. Or it could mean offering consumers information that allows them to choose the greenest mix of products and services that meets their needs.

The key element here is consistency in the way an organisation communicates a sustainable retail message across all touchpoints. It requires a market-leading CRM, knowledgebase, and agent support systems, all integrated and able to deliver exactly the right messaging for each consumer at every point in the customer journey.

Building new business models

According to a study, sales increase by fifty six per cent when customers know that a product is durable. This points to one possible new business model which brands and retailers can embrace that marries sustainability, good business sense, and a first-class customer experience.

Longer lasting products—which means fewer materials and lower energy use over the product lifetime—are attractive to customers. They also give a solid reason for customers to believe a brand’s sustainability claims. This strategy is most primarily available to brands and retailers in categories such as fashion.

It’s also applicable in most areas aside from fast-moving consumer goods (and even there, better value can make many products last longer). In computing, retail electronics, homeware and many other sectors, offering more durable products is a route to both a convincing brand position on sustainability and a profitable business model.

Other alternative business models that can be used to improve brand sustainability include subscription or ‘X-as-a-service’. These allow consumers to rent products they may not want to own long-term.

This increases the utilisation of that product—rather than sitting unused in someone’s home, it goes to the next person for as long as that person needs it—and it opens a compelling new business model. Subscription businesses grow faster than ones based on an old-fashioned transactional model—and customers spend on average sixty seven per cent more.

Fashion brands such as Banana Republic and Vince have shown that subscription models can work in the fashion market. Subscription services for tech consumables, such as printer cartridges, are already well established. The same is true for FMCG goods, from coffee to deodorant.

Sustainability and customer experience

Global cosmetics retailer Lush needed a way to ensure that its customer service was consistent, and incorporated its long-standing sustainability credentials, across all fifteen markets in which it operates. The company used Zendesk to integrate all its inbound contacts in one system, so that its agents always knew the customer’s needs and history with the brand.

Ensuring consistency across all touchpoints enabled the brand to ensure its key messaging, including sustainability and corporate responsibility messaging, was embedded in every relevant interaction with the customer. This enabled the global service team to ensure a positive customer experience for their young and socially conscious brand fans, resulting in ninety one per cent customer satisfaction rating.

The clock is ticking: It’s time for action

Climate change is real. It is a collective crisis and responsibility that each one of us, businesses and consumers alike, need to join forces on.

Every consumer choice should be measured in terms of its carbon impact, and every step in the supply chain should be evaluated in terms of its carbon footprint. Retail businesses, both traditional and e-commerce players, have an opportunity to not only meet their customers’ expectations of increased sustainability, create a more memorable customer experience, and boost brand loyalty, but the chance to make sustainable strategic decisions and smart investment in innovations that can help preserve our planet, and our future.

At Zendesk, we are committed to promoting and upholding ESG in all our products and services, and it is an integral part of our brand. We disclose our environmental impact transparently, offer carbon neutral products, and have made significant progress in emissions reductions. We’ve committed to setting our Science-Based Targets. And, there’s more that we are doing to create a sustainable future for all.

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