Ten years ago, most Americans would scoff at the notion of labeling 7-Eleven or Walmart a healthy or environmentally responsible brand. But as rising sea levels and expanding waistlines continue to turn consumers toward demands for public health and environmental improvements, brands that were once driven solely by low prices and convenience are now finding themselves under a public microscope.
In result, many legacy retailers are incorporating a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)—or two—into their brand identities.
Creating healthier humans
Leslie Pasquad, a senior partner at Kantar Consulting with over ten years of experience helping brands achieve sustainable category leadership, told RETHINK Retail that companies that are over-performing in 2019 are more likely to be “human-centric,” and that brands recognized for “purpose” grow “2x as fast” than those who aren’t.
“A growing number of consumers recognize the need to address the challenges we are facing as a species,” Pasquad said. “These same people are acutely aware of the power of brands and businesses to address the pressing issues that society faces and have increasingly high expectations that they do so.”
The United States is notoriously home to one of the unhealthiest populations in the Western world, much of which is attributed to poor eating habits and a culturally normalized sedentary lifestyle. Diabetes, heart disease and obesity round out the top chronic diseases facing Americans today, and after years of unhealthy, brand-created diet fads, American consumers are now demanding their favorite foods come without additives, GMO’s or harmful pesticides.
That’s why giant companies like General Mills, Kellogg’s, Nestle and Mars have all made commitments to remove artificial food dyes from their products while quick-stop chains like 7-Eleven are testing out new platforms and products like all-natural and organic Slurpee flavors.
“Good health is definitely on the American radar more than ever. We saw in the 2018 elections that this issue was driving voting decisions,” Pasquad revealed. “It is also driving purchases but at more of a personal than a societal level. Brands that show a commitment to improving health, whether it be CVS’s ban on tobacco or the Kind Bar’s transparency around ingredients are winning.”
Improving working conditions
As an extension of the health and wellness trend comes the advocation of the mental, physical and financial health of employees and partners. The retail industry is currently undergoing major shifts in calls for higher wages and benefits for store employees while social outcries for improved working conditions for factory laborers and farmhands have reached a near-global consensus.
Fashion retailers have caught major flack in recent years for the sourcing of their fabrics and dyes after media reports revealed that many clothing suppliers, like H&M, Gap and Urban Outfitters were purchasing cotton from Uzbekistan, where much of the cotton was being harvested by child laborers.
Since then, H&M and Gap initiated their own sustainability campaigns—H&M launched its flowy, Earth-mother inspired Conscious Collection—and both have signed on to the Better Cotton Initiative, which advocates for the use of organic, recycled and verified American and Australian- grown cotton. Adidas, Levi Strauss Co. and Nike have all signed onto that initiative as well. Other big-name retailers like Ikea, Pottery Barn and Target are working with nonprofit partners such as GoodWeave in support of its mission to end child labor in the rug industry.
Cleaning up the environment
In 2018, data retrieved by Pew Research Institute revealed about six-in-ten Americans said that global climate change was affecting their local community a “great deal or some.” And while political pundits continue to argue over how to best address the issue of climate change, consumers are reframing the way they view their dollar as they seek out brands that incorporate environmental sustainability into their products and company ethos.
Cause-based brands like 4Ocean have found overnight success in their business model. With a nearly never-ending supply of materials, 4Ocean turns their customers into cash activists when they purchase their products. Each made from a pound of recycled plastics retrieved from the ocean, the brand’s line of bracelets sells for $20 each and fund the company’s mission to clean the ocean and coastlines “one pound at a time.”
Founded in 2017, the company claims to have removed nearly 6 million pounds of plastics from the ocean and placed a New Guinness World Record for Largest Under Water Clean Up in June 2019 which included 633 divers.
Even retailers that were previously accused of greenwashing their brands with unsubstantiated claims about their eco-friendly credentials are now making strides in bringing forth new brand transparency regarding where their products are sourced from and how they impact the planet.
Once caught purposely hoodwinking environmentally conscious shoppers with their “sustainable,” recycled-tube, paper towel rolls, Walmart reportedly diverted 81 percent of unsold products, packaging and other waste materials from ending up in landfills last year and recycled more than 430 million pounds of plastic film and rigid plastics globally.
The retail chain currently has more than 460 renewable energy systems installed at its stores, clubs and distribution facilities worldwide. These onsite clean energy systems, which include solar and fuel cells, provide direct power and heat to Walmart’s buildings.
In June 2019, Walmart announced an agreement with US Solar to subscribe to 36 of the company’s Minnesota-based community solar gardens. With the first solar gardens already constructed, next year’s targeted completion will generate enough clean, renewable energy to provide energy savings for Walmart locations in 13 separate state counties.
Now on track to reduce 1 billion metric tons of emissions from global supply chains by 2030, the big-box retailer has committed itself to supplying its global operations with 50 percent renewable energy by 2025, on the path to 100percent renewable energy by mid-century.
“We’re engaged in efforts to source responsibly, create economic opportunity for retail associates and people working in supply chains, take action on climate change, and help improve the sustainability of the products we sell,” Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart’s chief sustainability officer said in a company statement.
“We believe business exists to serve society, and that when a business engages to be part of the solution not only can we help accelerate progress in the world, we make our business better, too.”