Sustainable retailing – all good things come in threes

A guide by Bettina Schlüter

Making a company sustainable involves more than having a green label attached to it. Unfortunately, what the concept of sustainability actually means and entails often falls by the wayside. The three-pillar model, also known as triple bottom line, says that the three pillars of People, Planet and Profit should be regarded as equal but mutually dependent elements. But what do these three dimensions actually mean for the retail sector?

As with any project, having a strategy is essential for transiting to sustainable retailing. Start by laying the groundwork and getting informed on the subject. Once you know where you stand and what challenges you want to tackle first, then go on to draw up a sustainability strategy. This should give you the answers to the following questions:

  • What might sustainability actually mean for us in retail?

  • Where do we see our business in 10 years’ time?

  • What are the most important fields of action for us?

  • How might we actually achieve these goals?

The fact that the three dimensions are mutually dependent soon becomes evident when you take a closer look at the potential measures. To give you an initial overview, here are some things you have to consider when making your retail business sustainable.


The social dimension

The social dimension focuses on people and society. Subjects such as health and safety, equal opportunities, the distribution of social burdens, role distribution and fair pay are regarded from a local and global perspective. Retail offers many opportunities to anchor social sustainability. You can provide your staff with relief for the health risks and strains they’re exposed to through standing for long periods of time, for example, by purchasing supportive furniture or offering preventive healthcare measures such as exercise classes.

Playing together in a team is a great way to foster cohesion and strengthen the bonds between employees. At the same time, work is more fun and, thanks to what’s offered, the team feels that the management appreciates them, too.

Take sustainability to heart

How do you take on greater social responsibility beyond your own business? Sit down with your team and find out which issue is particularly close to everyone’s heart and what you feel special responsibility for. This might be supporting local associations or social projects abroad. Do you, for example, buy cocoa or chocolate from Africa? Then support projects that provide fairer conditions and greater independence for cocoa farmers. Hold fundraising events or a lottery for these projects, maybe in cooperation with other retail outlets. With the sale of each recyclable carrier bag, part of the revenue goes to the related projects. Another option is to organise a big campaign day. This way, you can support the social, environmental and economic dimensions all at the same time. And in return, you draw customers to your shop and get the chance to gain new clientele.


The environmental dimension

The sustainability dimension, the “green” dimension, is the most well-known pillar. Even if you’re already on the right track, this dimension still offers plenty of hidden opportunities for making your retail business even more environmentally friendly.

Minimising CO2 emissions from power generation

Your source of power is the most obvious way to make adjustments. Lighting and air-conditioning often generate high emissions that you can have a direct influence on. Find measures that can cut your energy consumption in the long term or even generate energy yourself through photovoltaics, solar or geothermal energy, for example. To get clear information on your options, make an appointment with an energy consultant. You may have to make some long-term investments or win your landlord over first, but it’s down to you to make the switch to green power. Taking this step will reduce the CO2 emissions from electricity in your business by almost 100%.

But be warned! As with many things relating to sustainability, caution is advised. There are many seals that confirm the quality and sustainability of products, but finding your way through this veritable jungle is a challenge. Platforms such as the German government’s for sustainable consumption or the green electricity label check of the magazine will help you on your quest to find a sustainable and climate-friendly supplier.


Waste reduction

A further point to consider is the reduction of waste and the expansion of recycling in the retail sector. Shops that are committed to these factors enjoy a high standing with their clientele. Options for cutting down on waste are, for example, package-free concepts. Here, shoppers bring their own Tupperware containers or the like to your shop. Alternatively, your shop might sell only re-usable bags for carrying away purchases or you might give customers a discount if they bring their own bags. Even recycling old fabric or clothes in your shop is an option. There are also numerous cooperation partners, such as Recup. They hand out reusable containers that can be returned to various collection points.

Finally, take a close look at your deliveries, which generate a lot of waste. Talk to your suppliers about how you can team up to develop concepts that reduce transport routes as well as plastic and cardboard packaging. Make these points key criteria when deciding who to award contracts to.


The economic dimension

The three pillars of People, Planet and Profit form the basis of sustainability because they all support each other. The economic dimension is the final part of this triad. It looks at the issue of economic orientation and strategy as well as compliance with laws and regulations. It’s all about fair and transparent economic activity, both internally and externally. Who is responsible for putting into practice regulations, e.g. on occupational health and safety, the recording of working hours and the fair awarding of contracts? Ask your team to take responsibility and to point out any grievances.

Optimising process for lower CO2 emissions

Another vital topic for you here is your supply chains and the way goods are produced. It’s worth taking a closer look at all the steps in your supply chain. Check where the materials are being produced, what emissions production and delivery give rise to and what possibilities there are to reduce CO2. As an initial step, get an overview of your suppliers and start with 3 suppliers or commodity flows that you consider to be particularly relevant. What, for example, is partially budgeted for in terms of transport costs can instead be reduced or redistributed by using local production options? As long as you don’t deal with oversized goods, local production or delivery of purchased items offer a further improvement as freight bikes or e-bikes make delivery routes CO2-neutral.


All good things come in threes – sustainability made easy

As you can see, retailers have plenty of opportunities to make their business model more sustainable – even by taking small steps. And each step pays off on all three dimensions. For many, the deployment of a more sustainable business model is now one reason why they buy in certain shops. What’s more, the readiness for a change demonstrates a belief in the future viability of the business, which, in turn, attests to the business being reliable and the workplace attractive.

Environmental awareness is a win-win for everyone. Whether you take economic, social or environmental action first, it all pays off in the long run. The key thing is to start and take small steps towards your chosen goal.


Talk about how you’re making retailing more environmentally friendly:

  • Make sustainability, with all its opportunities and difficulties, a topic of conversation

  • Make it clear what you’d like to make more sustainable right now or in the near future, and report on successes

  • Mention your green projects when displaying environmentally friendly products from your own product range

  • Continually talk about the issue with your team, customers and suppliers.

  • Offer information or organise events and help establish sustainability as a key purchasing criterion

  • Show your customers how important being environmentally friendly is to you. This will make you more credible and encourage other people to get to grips with this important issue of the future.

UNO INO eG is a consultancy for new and sustainable management and stands for “You know – I know”. With the aim of anchoring sustainability in the core business and the parameters of companies, organisations and society, the cooperative supports businesses on their way to sustainability. For more information on UNO INO eG and how to apply sustainability strategies, please click here or contact Bettina Schlüter in person if you have any queries.


About the author:

Bettina Schlüter is a business economist and Sustainable Business Transformation Manager with more than 20 years’ experience of business and management consultancy. The core of her work is corporate strategy and the sustainable optimisation of supply chains and corporate processes. In 2020, she founded the UNO INO eG network together with other partners.



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