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B Corps, sustainability and carbon neutral in retail

This article appeared in The Drum on 25 March.

Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, consumers are more aware than ever of the ethical implications of their purchases and can easily question brands directly – and a silent or weak response is read loud and clear.

Brands need something tangible and credible to back up their claims, hence why the terms ‘B Corp’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘carbon neutral’ are increasingly prolific. But what do these claims actually mean for retailers, and which do customers care the most about?

We take a look at the retailers successfully, and less successfully, adopting B Corp status, focusing on sustainability and going carbon neutral – and weigh in on the pros and cons of all three.

Becoming a B Corp

Since 2006, the B Corp certification has been given to companies with a proven commitment to balancing both the books and a higher purpose. To become a certified B Corp, a business has to demonstrate that all its decisions consider the impact on both an internal and external level.

As Andy Fyfe from B Corp was quoted last year, “It’s a way to separate a good company from good marketing.”

Being a certified B Corp appeals to customers who want to shop exclusively ethically, as well as customers who aren’t as purpose-driven but who can be swayed when struggling to make a purchasing decision. Case in point, last month Ocado launched an ethical section dedicated to products from B Corp-certified brands like Ella’s Kitchen, Innocent, Charlie Bigham’s, Pip & Nut, Teapigs and Ben & Jerry’s. If more retailers follow suit, it will be even easier for customers to identify and compare ethical brands.

Is being a B Corp right for every brand though? The story of shoe brand Toms suggests it’s not right for everyone. Toms was founded in 2006 with a strong purpose, donating one pair of shoes for every pair sold, but didn’t qualify as a B Corp until 2019. Later that year, Toms was taken over by creditors after struggling with debt.

Ella’s Kitchen on the other hand, has been more successful. The baby-food brand is working to convert more of its suppliers to become certified B Corp too. Abel & Cole has adopted a similar approach, choosing to work with many fellow B Corp companies and regularly evaluating the rest through its Responsible Supplier Program.

The main benefit of being a B Corp is doing good and creating change, but there are other ways of doing so for brands that have too many suppliers and stakeholders to drive such a singular vision.

Investing in sustainability

Sustainability has taken a backseat during the pandemic, but as restrictions ease up in some countries it’s returning to the fore.

We looked at sustainability initiatives from big brands back in 2019, specifically retail giants most criticised for their environmental impact: Ikea for its throwaway cheap furniture; Levi’s for its water-guzzling denim; and H&M for the billions of tonnes of clothing it produces each year.

Since then Levi’s has continued to pioneer water-saving denim production, Ikea is still committed to using 100% renewable and recyclable materials by 2030, and H&M is aiming to use 52% recycled materials by 2030.

But while Levi’s and Ikea have been praised for their efforts, H&M has been accused of ‘greenwashing’. It could be the fact that the impact of fast fashion is more on the public’s radar, or that they’ve only committed to 52% recycled materials. Perhaps it’s because the brand is a much bigger corporation than Levi’s and Ikea, and so feels less authentic to consumers.

However, there are plenty of brands being applauded for their efforts. Sustainability pioneers like Lush and Stella McCartney are leading the way as you’d expect. Lush has now opened multiple packaging-free ‘naked stores’ around the world, while Stella McCartney has opened a sustainable pop-up in Bloomingdale’s New York, open until May.

More recently, United Colours of Benetton unveiled a sustainable new flagship store in Florence. The store features upcycled and natural materials, like mannequins made from recycled textile fibres and mineral paint on the walls. It’s not just about the fittings though – the clothes on sale are also sustainably made.

While this is only one store, Benetton says the move is part of a wider initiative to become ‘a model of sustainable fashion’. Compared to this goal, H&M’s plan to use 52% recycled materials by 2030 doesn’t seem ambitious enough. The question is though, do customers really care that much about sustainability?

Given the speedy growth of fast fashion brands during lockdown, which we covered last month, it would appear that while consumers are more eco-conscious, it’s not the main driving factor. This suggests that we have a long way to go before retail brands are forced to become 100% sustainable.

Lush
Benetton

Carbon neutral for the win?

Brands in every sector are going carbon neutral, from Allbirds shoes to Brewdog. We’ve all heard the phrase – but what does it actually mean? There are different interpretations. In essence, carbon neutral is about offsetting carbon emissions, e.g. by planting trees to offset the emissions from delivery vans. What’s not consistent is what else brands have to do to call themselves carbon neutral.

Greenwashing is a hot topic at the moment, and carbon neutral is facing a backlash from sustainability experts. To further muddy the waters, there are similar phrases gaining popularity, like carbon negative, climate positive, net negative emissions and net zero.

Whatever you call it, being carbon neutral could soon be a compliance issue, with scientists advising that we need to be a carbon neutral planet by 2050.

Coles in Australia has committed to being carbon neutral by this date, despite the government not yet making it a legal requirement. In the UK, 20 brands including Boots, Next and M&S have pledged to work on a net-zero roadmap for the retail sector by 2040.

For brands determined to be carbon neutral or net zero, it’s important to educate customers and give clear examples to avoid accusations of greenwashing. Brew Dog for example, explains on its website that it is now a carbon negative company. Its bold claim, ‘We take twice as much out of the air as we emit’, is very convincing for customers who want to know they are making a sustainable choice.

Brewdog

Be bold, clear and committed

What’s most important here is helping customers to make decisions. As the retail industry becomes more interested in – and legally obliged by – sustainable and ethical practices, customers will be overwhelmed with information.

Categories and labels could help. Anti-fast fashion brand Birdsong, for example, makes styles in two different fabrics and explains the sustainability benefits of both, so customers can make an informed decision. It also breaks down costs – how much the material cost, how much the workers got paid etc. Imagine shopping for clothes the way you shop for eggs, with clear labels telling you the ethical implications and seeing this reflected in the price.

Brands will have to choose whichever path works best for their scale and industry.  But as customers become more empowered, their approach will also have to be consumer led.

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