Department of Business Administration

Lund University School of Economics and Management

What is the retail industry’s role in sustainable consumption?

Published: 2017-12-06

Sustainability is a strategic question of great importance for retailers. It is not just a matter of consuming less but of consuming the right products in the right way.

Retailers and researchers discussed sustainable consumption from a retail perspective.

50 retailers and academic experts recently gathered in Helsingborg to discuss the future of the physical store. This was the third in a series of workshops held by Lund University’s Centre for Retail Research in association with the Swedish Retail and Wholesale Council. The theme for the third workshop was sustainability and participants got a glimpse of how multifaceted the issue of sustainability is for the retail industry. Jens Hultman led the workshop, during which the topics of usage, transportation, recycling, manufacturing, production, retail, sales and communication were covered. A large part of the retail industry’s environmental impact can be traced back to the production and transportation of goods. 

Sustainable ideas into practice

The day included group discussions and lectures from both practitioners and academics. The first to present was Johan Jansson, lecturer in business administration at Lund University’s School of Economics. In his presentation, From Linear to Circular, Johan described the idea of ​​a circular economy, and how a circular mindset could affect retailers. With examples from the clothing industry, Johan described how retailers could transform sustainable ideas into practice, for example by focusing not only on selling but also on subscription-based services or clothing libraries. In order for these ideas to work in practice, Johan argued that there would need to be an overall change in expectations and standards in the industry. Next up, Ingela Lind, environmental manager at Lindex, described how their businesses have taken on the sustainable retail challenge. Ingela gave an overview of the kind of sustainability thinking that she believes should penetrate the core business of a company like Lindex. She explained that the company's communication concept, We make fashion feel good, represents the challenges they face in balancing considerations such as fashion, price and sustainability. Ingela also highlighted how Lindex works with specific initiatives such as textile collection in stores and the One Bag Habit scheme.

Communicating sustainability a complex task

Ulf Elg, Professor in business administration at Lund University’s School of Economics, presented on the theme How consumers reason around social responsibility in-store. Ulf explained that communicating sustainability in a retail environment is complicated, partly because the sustainability message is just one of many in-store messages. Sometimes the messages are contradictory. For example retailers must inform sceptical customers about product sustainability at the same time as selling to them. Participants broke into small groups before lunch, and got the chance to discuss the content of the morning’s presentations in light of their own experiences. How retail will be able to meet future demands for sustainability in the physical store was a pressing question for all present.

“We need more events like this!” said Mai von Gegerfelt, who is president of the Chamber of Commerce in Lund. She thought the workshop was inspiring and motivating, especially the group work, which brought together people with different skills, from different backgrounds.

Focus on large retailers and service

After lunch, Maria Smith, head of sustainability strategy and development for the ICA Group, presented how large retailers such as ICA deal with sustainability issues. Maria gave an overview of the sustainability areas on which ICA is currently focusing, and also the challenges that it faces. For example, Maria reported that two thirds of ICA's customers don’t know enough about sustainability issues and that one fifth of meals ordered through its matkasse service are thrown away! Christian Fuentes, a lecturer at Lund University’s Department of Service Management, made the final presentation of the day. Christian presented on the theme Sustainability as Service, and discussed what sustainability issues can be addressed by retail staff in-store. Christians's advice to the industry is to train staff that can support different ways of shopping sustainably and to reorganise retail so that it supports the sustainable store in the future.

The discussions also focused on how the retail industry can balance sustainability and profitability. Researchers from Lund University’s Centre for Retail Research, along with participants and speakers from the three workshops, will now summarise the impressions and lessons learned and publish them in a book. The centre plans to run more similar workshops in the future, as this series has proved so rewarding for both the organizers and the participants.

"The whole workshop series has been spot on for us,” said Ylva Skoogh, who has participated in all three of the Framtidens butik workshops. “Interesting speakers and great group discussions" says Ylva who works as partner and strategy adviser at Integrate, a consulting firm that offers strategic advice in sustainable trade and tourism.

Centre for Retail Research

The Centre for Retail Research at Lund University is an interdisciplinary research center with a focus on the retail sector.