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The Retail Cost of Reducing Our Carbon Footprint

From White Castle to Whole Foods, businesses nationwide are taking the lead in helping shoppers have a more eco-friendly experience. Arrive at a green airport, and you may see electronic trash monitoring devices and biodegradable food packaging. Poke your head in an alley and it’s hard to miss those green and blue recycling bins in various cities. Environmentalism and our carbon footprint is even a hot topic in politics. And the retail industry has involved itself in making it easier for consumers to be more eco-conscious, too.


Retail’s influence on restaurants and shopping

Head to the grocery store checkout aisles, and you may end up paying a plastic bag tax or getting a discount for bringing your own reusable bags. Dog owners are noticing eco-friendly advertising on pet products; some dog toy companies (ex. The Antler Box ) are purposely using plastic-free, eco-friendly packaging to wrap dog antlers. Coca Cola products are planning out ways to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells by 2030. The latter company has also reportedly donated $1 million to community recycling bins in the United States.

And restaurant retailers such as Starbucks have been proudly promoting their environmentally friendly practices for years. Starbucks Reserve Roastery (in addition to their smaller locations) has their usual recycling bins spread around the five-floor eatery. But they’ve also incorporated hand-held shopping baskets with cloth fabric instead of the hard plastic versions that customers are used to.

Now the restaurant chain is taking their carbon-cutting goals major steps forward with more preliminary goals by 2030: conserve or replenish half of the water used for coffee production or operations; reduce half of the waste sent to landfills by stores and manufacturing; and cut carbon emissions by half in its supply chain and direction operations.

Although Starbucks was already offering vegetarian- and vegan-friendly food items (ex. Zucca Arrostita pizza), they plan to take it one step further. Other restaurant chains have seen success in selling plant-based sandwiches: Dunkin Donuts (Beyond Meat Breakfast Sandwich), White Castle (Impossible Slider) and Burger King (Impossible Whopper). Starbucks plans to follow their lead and offer plant-based sandwiches, too.

But with the success of companies becoming more green-friendly, there are a few obstacles.


Not all eco-friendly initiatives are embraced

As much as retailers have made steps to meet their consumers’ desire for eco-friendly shopping, there is still some hesitation. While retailers like Starbucks offered reusable cups for sale, customers often went for the free option. While Target and Whole Foods Market sell their own reusable bags, customers seem more likely to want the money-off discounts and skipping these new bags altogether. The plastic bag ban tax was also met with much resistance in cities such as Chicago, especially when nearby retailers in Evanston, Illinois and Skokie, Illinois don’t charge anything extra for plastic bags.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg lost the battle against Big Gulps in New York City, regardless of increasing concerns regarding calorie count and plastic waste. And regardless of toy chains such as Toys “R” Us reinventing themselves with fewer toys on display that could potentially be broken, the average toy aisle in retail stores is still full of plastic.

But sometimes wildly popular children’s plastic toys do even better in the second-hand market. LEGO is one of them. According to Vox, “There are thousands of used LEGO sets selling on eBay, with some collectibles listed for as high as $10,000.” On one hand, new LEGO bricks are still selling like mad. But is the second-hand market’s success good news for those who want to embrace more reducing, and less reusing and recycling? Sometimes it may depend on the consumer. Other times it depends on how much they know about how to reduce, reuse and recycle.

“A Starbucks customer probably does have more interest in what their sustainability practices are and it factors into their choice of being a Starbucks customer,” said Ricardo Belmar, the Senior Director of Global Enterprise Marketing at Infovista, during an episode of the Retail Rundown.

“When I heard the news about Coke, I thought about the LEGO Group. LEGO Bricks, of course, are all plastic. They have come under question in the past about what [the company] is going to do because they produce millions and millions of these every year. … Eventually, some of these pieces are going to make their way into a waste process. What happens to all that plastic?”

It turns out these concerns are on LEGO’s mind, too. According to the official website, parents and guardians (or even collectors who no longer want them) can donate their leftover LEGO pieces. After boxing up their bricks, consumers can go to the website GiveBackBox.com/LEGO to print out shipping labels and send them to the post office. LEGO Stores also have free shipping labels, or consumers can drop their donations off in person. Those bricks are then sorted and cleaned before being donated to Teach for America or Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston. And if they’re not in good enough shape to pass on, the pieces that cannot be ground down for reuse have a new job; they’ll be used to help generate power in LEGO facilities.

But for retailers who want to sell the products in their stores, consumers may not find this information at all on a retailer’s website or display shelves. While consumers will see countless posts for various plastic toys, buying them from second-hand locations or recycling them means the retailer loses money. So retailers are left trying to both be eco-friendly and still make a profit.


The takeaway:

Whether companies are starting off introducing eco-friendly products to consumers or figuring out how to reduce, reuse and recycle on the backend, consumers are paying attention. Retailers are left with a sometimes difficult business decision to push reusing instead of rebuying, which may be more eco-friendly but leave the retailer with less profit. If manufacturers can incorporate more environmentally friendly practices and packaging on the front end, it may be an easier sell for stores, too.