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Going green is easier said than done

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April 22 is Earth Day, an annual occasion first observed in 1970 and meant to raise awareness and inspire action. This year the theme is “Invest in the Planet,” and some retailers are doing just that.

Walmart, the planet’s largest retailer, recently announced that its Project Gigaton initiative is now more than halfway to its goal of reducing or avoiding 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its product supply chains by 2030. Many other retailers have their own ambitious programs.

But is the retail industry as a whole doing enough? A new study by the global management consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG), collaborating with the World Retail Congress, has good news and bad news. The good news is that the companies polled for the study were “nearly unanimous” in believing that sustainability initiatives would drive value in the next five to 10 years, and half of the respondents said they believed their companies would invest “whatever it takes” to reach their goals.

The survey, which polled 37 big retail businesses around the world, with annual revenue ranging from $1 billion to $500 billion, also found that retailers saw that winning in sustainability could confer competitive advantages, including the ability to cut costs and gain a competitive advantage over their rivals by attracting new customers and tapping into new revenue streams.

The bad news is that few of the companies surveyed could really claim that sustainability was core to their strategy, decision making and value creation. The report argues that some retailers are focused on “sustainability basics,” just doing enough to comply with regulations and meet the minimum expectations of investors and other stakeholders.

BCG suggests that retailers who want to do better should adopt a strategy that includes setting priorities and reimagining their value chains. Collaborating with peers and working more closely with suppliers will also be key.

“As the industry moves in the direction of greater sustainability, a focus on progress, rather than perfection, will be critical,” says Ian McGarrigle, chairman of World Retail Congress.

The study also suggests that companies in the early stages of their journey should focus on small steps and quick wins.


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