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At Shoptalk, Digital-First Retailers Explain Why Sustainability Has to be a Top Down Initiative

Legacy retailers are making the slow creep toward supply chain sustainability, with some companies’ efforts rendering more success than others. Digitally-native organizations, on the other hand, have a leg up, thanks in part to the fact that they were founded in an era of heightened awareness and they have smaller-scale production volumes that allow for more mindful supply chain decisions.

At Shoptalk, Edward Hertzman, Sourcing Journal’s founder and president, hosted a panel with CEOs of Frank And Oak; Grove Collaborative and Uncommon Goods, each next-generation retail brands that take a thoughtful approach to sustainability across multiple industries. 

One of the primary points of discussion how to even define sustainability. Stuart Landesberg of Grove Collaborative said the lack of uniformity in sustainability standards across the assortment of products the household and personal goods marketplace offers creates a challenge.

“Objective measures that cross wildly different industries are hard,” Landesberg said. “We sell paper and toothpaste and cleaning products. Coming up with a universal standard even across those three somewhat similar categories is hard.”

Ethan Song of Canadian fashion retailer Frank And Oak supported Landesberg’s point, adding that in the apparel world, assessing every facet of the supply chain for environmental impact is an enormous undertaking. Even a simple product like a plain sweatshirt has complex environmental aspects, but, he said, apparel brands shouldn’t allow that to deter their efforts.

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“I feel as though if you come in with [a defeatist] attitude, then it won’t be changed,” Song said. He added it’s up to company leaders, like himself and his fellow panelists, to set a standard for the way their companies operate. “I do think, as a founder and a company owner, you have to create deeper relationships within the supply chain, and not just rely on the information provided to you,” Song said. “You need to actually verify it yourself and have long-term relationships with your partners.”

And one question constantly weighing on the industry is: who pays for the added costs often associated with sustainability, and who should be paying?

David Bolotsky of Uncommon Goods, which sells unique gifts, including decor, jewelry and collectibles, said this can vary across industries, too, and that ultimately, it’s up to the retailer as to whether they will bundle those costs into product prices or deploy other cost-saving measures to offset them. Landesberg said being sustainable isn’t always more expensive. In some cases, he said, making products using eco-friendly materials or processes actually lowers costs by making them lighter, smaller and easier to ship, ultimately resulting in a more affordable option for brands and consumers alike.

Bolotsky said it’s part of Uncommon Goods’ culture to factor the company’s impact on the environment and other people into every decision. As an example, he explained how all of Uncommon Goods’ catalogs are printed on FSC-certified paper, at around a 20 to 30 percent higher price point than options with looser certifications. Uncommon Goods absorbs that cost, Bolotsky said, to authenticate the brand ethos its customers love. Still, Bolotsky admits it’s a challenge.

“It’s very hard. As companies, we have to do the education for consumers,” he said.

Part of that education is helping customers understand what the certifications and labels on eco-friendly products mean. And sometimes, Bolotsky said, it means being critical of initiatives that miss the mark. “The folks that are out there greenwashing need to be called on it,” he said.

Adding to that, Song said the prevalence of greenwashing shows that consumers have a hunger for sustainable options—but it’s up to companies to initiate the conversation that guides them to responsible choices.

“I am hopeful that because brands have the ability now to speak in such a richer dialogue with the consumer, that business leaders can push authenticity through,” Landesberg said. He also spoke to the opportunity digital-first brands have to lead in this area. “As digital brands become more prominent, legacy brands have to play catch up. I am optimistic that the pendulum will swing back towards pressure to do the things that are authentic, driven by consumers who are more educated.”

Brands with roots in the digital space will be the first to go beyond reducing environmental footprints and begin finding ways to positively impact the environment, Song said. “I think ultimately, what we need to do is not just minimize impact, but find a way to restore what’s already been lost.”