How retail brands can humanize sustainability?

Sustainability at retail can be perceived as being  illogical if not contradictory.  Because according to logic, if the purpose of retail is about promoting only purchase and thereby consumption, then it runs counter to sustainability principles such as reduce, recycle and re-use.  But retail in its broadest sense is not just about stores.  It also refers to having a physical, local or direct to community business presence (i.e. a bank or post-office would qualify as retail).   But in order to bring the concept of “sustainability” out beyond the niche and to the masses, we will need to transcend logic and find more ways to get people to care about life tomorrow – today.

This is why retail is vital.  Because the power of retail comes not from logic, but that which inspires emotion. Great retail brands i.e. Nordstrom or Amazon, have the ability to not only respond to needs, but also open our eyes to new ideas through delight and surprise.  Retail adds physical and experiential dimension to concepts that would otherwise be too cerebral.  And through retail storytelling the principles of sustainability can come to life in ways that can truly excite interest, promote engagement, and quite possibly change behavior.

Skeptics need to remember that only ten years ago when the thought of buying shoes without ever touching or trying them-on seemed incomprehensible.  It took a retailer such as Zappos to change behavior and raise the bar on service expectations.  Since then, shopping for shoes has never been the same.  In fact the experience of shoe shopping (whether online or in-store)  has only gotten better because of Zappos’ impact.

Since as much as 80 percent of communication is nonverbal, then what better way to communicate the principles of sustainability than to allow people to experience it first hand.  And because human thought and memory is formed not from words but from images and emotions, what better way to get people to care and identify with a new concept than to show them how it can be applied today.

Such principles are the reasons why Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” video is a stellar example of sustainability storytelling. Unsustainable farming is a universal and serious issue.  It affects the lives of all in one way or another.  The magnitude of the issue is a key reason why people find it hard to connect to the issue.  For the general public, systemic issues such as this or climate change and social/community health and well-being are such complex and overwhelming issues.  When we are unable to understand, let alone relate, our human instinct is to distance ourselves and possibly disconnect through indifference.

Chipotle’s video does a brilliant job of taking a huge and complex issue and humanizing it to a level that makes us care.  The story is powered by pure emotion.  It is endearing and enlightening as it illustrates the bigger picture issue while inspiring us all to take part.   No words are needed.  No voice-over to direct our thoughts  (unless you count Willie Nelson singing).  No numbers, charts or science is ever used to convey the story.

But even with or without words, there is still the real challenge of overcoming public perception and biases. There is such a limited range in how “sustainability” is articulated today – especially on a local retail level.  It is why I believe that “sustainability” has become such a polarizing word.  We need to find ways of giving it added dimension and broader relevance.  We won’t get sustainable thinking to stick through ubiquitous use of the word.   Nor can we expect people who are indifferent to willingly pursue greater understanding of the term.  We need to be able to communicate the principles and concepts of sustainability in ways that are not limiting interpretation or opportunities of relevance.

Consider for a moment how “sustainability” principles are brought to the attention of people on a daily basis?   In order to gain critical mass support, we need more than reminders  i.e “Remember to Recycle,” or  ”green” products, eco-friendly materials or responsible choices called out in marketing materials (i.e “We run on clean energy).”  Many brand efforts that call out support for the environment is often presented at retail as being more like an FYI or directional signage/labeling.
Promoting sustainability conscious ways at retail must strive to connect – not just be present.

Retail brands must have the courage to not only make a statement, but to do so in a way that transcends the norms of what I refer to in the chart below as the “What” and “How” in sustainability communication.

Humanizing Sustainability :Requires reinterpretation, re-scaling and reconnecting the principles of sustainability to the issues that matter to people today.

humanizing sustainability

Within retail it seems that every store these days features their own line of re-usable shopping bags, or will ask for a donation upon checkout to support a cause.  In principle, there is nothing wrong with any of this.  But if you look at it through the eyes of someone who may not even care in the first place,  all of this “me too” and very predictable promotion of environment and community related causes can eventually dilute if not potentially repel further support or interest.

We need retail brands to leverage their unique storytelling ability to find new ways of manifesting sustainability principles on a humanized, physical and local level.  There is far more room for sustainability storytelling and expression.  Retail has the unique ability to expose new ideas, experiences and opportunities to engage.  We need all of this and more so that people will not only understand, but also care enough to actively apply such principles going forward.

I believe the shift in expanding retail’s relationship with sustainability needs to begin with how we think about “retail.”

Retail brands who understand and embrace the social role they play in a community’s well being will act with a greater sense of duty and civic responsibility.  Through their active participation they will not only contribute to improving the local ecosystem, but also benefit from community trust and loyalty.

Retailers need to enrich the community, not degrade or overpower their identity.  Retail that is thoughtfully managed and conscientiously integrated into the social ecosystem can become an enduring source of local pride.  Sustainability on a local level means “me” becomes “we.” Consumers are now valued and regarded as people.  Retail becomes a citizen of the community and conduit for the endurance of social well-being.

A great example of this is Easton Town Center in Columbus Ohio.


I mention this example not because Steiner & Associates, the developers of Easton, is a client of E.B. Alliance, but because of the integrity of their development and management ethos.

It exemplifies the symbiotic relationship that retail can have with its local community. Since the opening of Easton ten years ago, it has evolved into becoming not only the benchmark for the development of mixed-use property (retail, entertainment, office and hospitality). More importantly, it gave residents outside of the city of Columbus a true sense of community identity and a meaningful sense of “place.” In fact, Easton has become a beacon for the central region of Ohio because of the yearly traditions (i.e. Summer Concerts, Outdoor Movies, Holiday Parades etc.), community access to green and open spaces, and generous philanthropic support of local causes. Easton has become a truly beloved retail brand (even though it is not even a store) so much so that Easton has earned a net promoter score that is even higher than Apple!


Here are some examples of how retail brands have brought the principles of humanizing sustainability to life in the form of actions, commitments and support of citizens/local communities. Their bold actions and dedication towards community building and environment enrichment are great examples of how to express “sustainability” without using the same language or means of communicating reinforcing ideas.

Restore, Enrich and Revitalize

Zappos & Downtown LasVegas – Zappos & Downtown LasVegas – “Return on Community” is Tony Hsieh’s (CEO of Zappos) guiding philosophy. And given the success and impact Zappos has had in retail within the last decade, there should be no doubt as to the merits of such an approach. In fact, late 2011 Tony committed $350 million towards the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas. The goal is to build “The most community focused large city in the world” and to do so within five years!

Loren Becker, of Zappos – is responsible for stewarding the move of the company into downtown Las Vegas over the next year and a half. I’m thrilled to have Loren join me at Sustainable Brands c0nference this coming June for our talk on “Retail with Purpose.” Loren will be sharing more about how the community minded culture of Zappos has now become a physical and culture lifestyle reality.

Climate Change, Waste, Sustainable Raw Materials, Health & Fair Partnerships

Marks & Spencer’s Plan A CSR program was launched in 2007 with 100 commitments to achieve in five years. They were so effective in their efforts that they increased their commitments to 180 by 2015. The retail brand’s ultimate goal is to become the world’s most sustainable major retailer. What is refreshing to see in their execution is the amount of personality, wit and even humor put into their communication efforts. For example, just the name of their CSR program is crafted to make the point via the punchline “Plan A –we believe it’s the only way to do business – because there is no Plan B.”

Recently Joanna Lumley, the iconic actress and TV personality launched ”M&S “Shwopping” an effort to raise awareness about the impact of wasteful attitudes towards clothes. The goal is to reduce the 1 billion items being dumped into UK landfills each year by encouraging shoppers to drop off their unwanted clothes at M&S for recycling or resell by Oxfam.

Lumley was quoted as saying “I think young people have been encouraged to buy something, wear it for months and throw it out.” So perhaps M&S with the help of Lumley will be able to discourage enough people to make a sustainable difference. Although the use of retail as recycling centers is not a new idea, it is the way in which such ideas are communicated and brought to life that make even old ideas seem new again! It’s OK to re-use and recycle campaign ideas – only if it is done in a way that gets notice and drives emotional appeal.

I’m looking forward to having  Gwen Morrison, Co-CEO of WPP Retail also joining me at SB’12 for my “Retail with Purpose” session. Gwen’s talk at NRF in 2010 about retail innovation in emerging markets was so inspiring that I felt compelled to write about it a year go. Gwen will be sharing more about M&S as well as some of the examples mentioned in my earlier post. What retailers are doing throughout South America or South Africa serve as great reminders that you don’t have to be a big brand or have big budgets to make a big sustainable difference in people’s lives.

It is in the best interest of every retailer to be amongst a thriving and enduring community. It is also smart business. Retail can only endure if the economic and emotional health of its local community is sustainable.

Now more than ever, retailers need to bring to bear all the magic of storytelling and experiential communication that can give people more reasons to care and engage a more eco-conscious way of living.

If a retail brand such as Zappos can even get shoe fanatics such as I to change the way I shop for shoes, then why would it be difficult to imagine that retail can inspire the change in people’s attitudes and behaviors towards sustainability? (Anneliza Humlen for )

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