6 ways to be an ethical retailer

01 March 2022, 07:22 AM
  • Want to attract new customers and improve your store’s sustainability credentials? Here’s how to start a green makeover
6 ways to be an ethical retailer

Whether you run a traditional village greengrocer, a modern delicatessen in a city centre or anything in between, taking charge of your store’s ethical credentials could be a boon for business. The so-called ‘green pound’ has reached a stunning value of £122bn, more than doubling in the past decade, according to the Co-op’s Ethical Consumerism Report. To discover how to claim a slice of this growing market – and make a real difference towards a more sustainable future – read on.

Go plastic-free
Single-use plastics are one of the easiest targets in the sustainability fight. A whopping 81% of Britons would support a total ban on single-use plastics, research by YouGov found. For fine food retailers, cutting out plastic creates a clear differentiation between themselves and the local supermarket or convenience shop. What does this look like in practice? It could be a zero-waste refill station for grains, herbs or milk from the local dairy; using wax wraps at the cheese counter instead of clingfilm; or simply stocking more products that use biodegradable packaging.

Innovations have brought the plastic-free packaging sector to life, with indies often leading the way. For example, the brand Water in a Box was “born out of the ambition to move away from plastic bottles, and to instead find a new and innovative way to package water that is better for our health and for the planet,” says Karl Martin, commercial director of Water in a Box. “Consumers are actively looking for more sustainable and environmentally friendly products, and we are seeing this demand across independent retailers, farm shops and delis. It gives owners a real point of difference.”

Moves to cut out plastics could extend to your café or food to go offering, too – and soon, they may even be required by law. The Government unveiled a plan to ban single-use plastic cutlery and condiment sachets. Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, believes that indie retailers can take the lead on the issue. “With a wealth of alternatives to plastic sachets becoming available, independent businesses should not fear this latest shift away from plastic, but embrace it,” she tells Speciality Food. “With the public desperate for the industry to meet the plastic crisis head on, smaller businesses can be the catalyst for inspiring this, and they will benefit as shoppers, fed up with the plastic guilt, will support them,” Sian says. “Simply put, they can set the tone on plastic.” 

Stock smart
Fine food retailers already hold the products they stock to a high standard for taste, authenticity and provenance, as well as shelf appeal. But by adding a few more tick boxes to this list, they can help customers answer one of their biggest questions of our day: “What should I eat to be more sustainable?”

Many of your products will fit the bill already, but with such a huge number of certifications and labels available today, how do you choose what’s right for your customers? One label that’s quickly becoming an essential credential for sustainable brands is B Corporation. B Corp certification takes a holistic view of a business’s social and environmental impact, and achieving it is no mean feat. “Getting B-Corp accreditation wasn’t easy, neither should it be; all good things require effort,” says Becky Vale, marketing director at Tracklements, which was granted B Corp status in October 2021, a process that took 18 months. “The B Corp accreditation touches every part of the business, from governance, through to community, staff and environmental responsibility,” Becky says.

Avallen, a sustainable calvados brand, undertook the same rigorous process on its journey to B Corp status. “The B Lab Impact Assessment is an extremely thorough business review and required us to have a long look at Avallen as a business,” says co-founder Tim Etherington-Judge. “While very time consuming, it’s an extremely useful exercise as it forced us to really question a lot of areas of our business, write policies that we hadn’t gotten around to writing, and make positive changes to the way we did things.” Stocking products which have gone through certification processes ensure a stamp of approval that you can trust.

Communicate with customers
Dozens of voluntary certifications are on the market today, and keeping track of what they all mean is not only difficult for retailers, but also customers. Research by YouGov revealed that the least well-recognised label of six it researched was the Soil Association’s Organic label. “With so many food labels in circulation, understanding organic’s defining points can help retailers inform customers’ decision-making processes,” says Roger Kerr, chief executive of Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G). For example, he says, “Organic certification ensures the integrity of organic food against a clear set of standards. Customers buying organic food can be assured that they are making a positive, verifiable choice for the environment and their health. 

“Making staff aware of the benefits of organic and being comfortable engaging with customers about specific organic suppliers or brands will be a real asset. Most organic producers have a compelling story to tell,” he continues. The same goes for other certifications, and local or sustainable products. “If you’re a retailer, you simply want to communicate with your customers most effectively,” says Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust. “Think about the story behind the food products you are selling. Satisfy your customers’ growing interest in the story.”

Create a mission statement
It might sound “a bit American,” Patrick says, but mission statements can set your shop’s values and principles in stone, making them more easily understood by customers. He explains, “You could say, ‘We make every effort to ensure that our foods are sustainably produced and locally sourced where possible, and grown from farmers whose story we know.’ If you simply put that up and you adhere to it, that’s a big thing, isn’t it?” Once again, it draws a clear line between your offering and that of the supermarket chains. “Very, very few supermarkets will be able to say that,” Patrick adds.

Promote transparency
“Traceability and transparency are increasingly important for both producers who are doing the right thing, and members of the public who are concerned about what they are eating and asking more questions,” says the Pasture for Life Association’s Jimmy Woodrow. While labels and certifications can provide some degree of transparency, Patrick says current food labelling schemes don’t always give the information that consumers are looking for. “One of the things we need is a better labelling scheme, where the provenance of the food and the story behind it is more easily understood,” he says.

One group working to push through requirements for more transparent labelling in the UK is CLEAR. Catherine Chong, one of the campaign’s leaders, says the consortium of 40+ members is looking into what information should be included on packaging and how it is communicated. “This is not just about the end consumer benefiting, but the whole supply chain. Different stakeholders within the supply chain, including retailers, restaurants, or wholesalers, will be able to make their buying decisions based on a more transparent system.” 

By presenting the facts about the food’s production, this form of labelling would also fight another enemy of the food industry: greenwashing. “One of the motivations is that this system will help against greenwashing,” Catherine says. Until a system like this is widespread in the UK, Patrick says retailers can fight for transparency by stocking food and drink products with a known story that they can communicate to their customers.

For instance, California-based Sun Valley Rice has a unique level of transparency over its products because the company has ownership over the entire process “Each bag of rice is grown within 100 miles of where it’s sustainably milled, sprouted, germinated, and packaged to industry-leading standards,” explains Karye Benton, quality assurance and food safety manager at Sun Valley Rice. “Their ability to balance the art of growing with the science of sustainability is what allows Sun Valley Rice and their rice products to span from a grassroots family beginning to a broader global reach.” 

Support regeneration and fair labour
As the food and drink industry becomes aware of its duty to protect the earth, retailers can play their role by seeking out brands that are kinder to the planet. “Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems,” explains Karye. “It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting bio-sequestration, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.” As well as focusing on the soil, Sun Valley Rice has been a champion of improving water quality for two decades, and has been part of a movement of US rice growers giving land back to wildlife. “Workplace sustainability,” Karye adds, “takes the form of fair labour practices, competitive earning, and deep community involvement.” Brands that go above and beyond to promote sustainability, as well as the farming communities that support them, should be of particular interest to retailers.

Looking into your shop’s carbon footprint can open up many opportunities for sustainable improvements. If you’re at the start of your carbon reduction journey, research companies that you can model yourself after, and talk to other business owners taking these steps – many will be more than happy to share their experience and advice. 

Puffin Produce is a Welsh potato brand that launched the world’s first carbon zero potatoes, Root Zero, and The Welsh Government is working on a Decarbonisation Action Plan for the food and drink manufacturing industry to help even more brands transition to net zero. 

“Our vision is to create a food and drink industry which is world-leading in terms of its sustainability credentials,” Lesley Griffiths, Welsh Government minister for rural affairs, says. It demonstrates the changing priorities of both the Government and consumers. “This ambition reflects the urgency and commitment expressed across Welsh Government to tackle the climate emergency and to respond to an increased focus by consumers to purchase products with minimal environmental impact and ethically produced from sustainable supply chains,” Lesley continues. “It seems likely in the long run, those retailers and manufacturers who can demonstrate business responsibility through sustainable improvements which prioritise environmental, social, health and quality values will be most favoured by consumers.”

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