4 tips for ringing up sustainability success in retail

Retailers can take pride in their sustainability progress, and the industry's stakeholders increasingly are taking interest. But with the breadth of stakeholders that are important to the industry — consumers, employees, investors, regulators, communities and business partners — it can be difficult to determine how and when to communicate efforts, and to whom.

That said, the trend is clear: more frequently, retail companies are communicating their sustainability challenges, efforts, goals and results to both internal and external audiences. In RILA's 2013 Retail Sustainability Report, we learned that 71 percent of retailer respondents were communicating their sustainability efforts both publicly (through their company website) and internally (using intranet sites). More than half have formal CSR Reports and are using social media; and retailers expect to increase their use of every communications channel to share their sustainability journeys by 2015.

How can you best communicate your sustainability efforts?

When strategizing for sustainability communications, retailers can follow a simple calculation.

Which stakeholders matter? What matters to them? + What's material to you = A company's definition of "sustainability."

Only after that calculation has been solved can a retailer determine the messages to share and the channels that are most appropriate.

Step 1: Determine the stakeholders that matter to you and what matters to them

Of course, all of retailers' stakeholders matter to the business, but they may have varying sustainability needs. For example, customers need to be able to personally relate to the issue, such as the healthfulness of food or cleaning items. Employees want information that relates to their role — be it recycling, real estate or sourcing — and opportunities to get engaged in the company's sustainability journey. By contrast, investors look for hard metrics to measure and manage risk, returns and results. Suppliers need information about the company's sourcing policy and practices, as well as consumers' preferences. Communities want their major concerns, such as economic integration, store development, transparency and water use, addressed.

These constituents already are talking on social media, through investor resolutions, customer feedback and elsewhere. But most retailers find that few of these groups explicitly ask about the company's "sustainability" performance. Instead, they find that these stakeholders refer to the sustainability-related issues that are important to them — such as more healthful products, recycling, reporting and store development. These are the issues that they want to hear about.

Step 2: Determine what is material to your business

The next step is a self-reflection: What issues are material to the company? For retailers, those issues relate to its physical assets — stores and distribution centers — and its products and supply chains. Analysis of the most material issues can be done in two ways: the opportunities with the greatest cost or risk reduction potential, and the opportunities with the greatest alignment to the company's strategy and culture.

Coke glasses in store image by GollyGForce via Flickr

For the physical assets, retail's most material issues typically relate to utilities such as energy and fuel usage, and waste and recycling. Product and supply chain issues tend to relate to what's in the product, where it comes from and how it was made. Communications are authentic only if they address these retail critical sustainability issues.

Step 3: Define "sustainability" in a way that's relevant to you and your stakeholders

Each retailer's definition of sustainability — for the purposes of communicating their efforts — will be unique to them and their business environment; and is calculated as the sum of the first two steps. Map all the sustainability-related issues based on their relevance to stakeholders and to the company, identifying those that rank highest for both. Done right, communications will relate to both its stakeholders' needs and the core business's strategy.

Step 4: Pick your message and medium

You know the issues of concern for your audiences based on the calculus above. Identify the messages relevant to you and them, then find the appropriate channel to reach them where they are. A few favorite communication tools for retailers are CSR reports, company websites, marketing, product packaging and social media.RILA's 2013 Retail Sustainabilty Report shows retailers' current sustainability communication modes and their plans for the future

CSR Reports provide organized information about company sustainability programs in one format. Additionally, reports such as the Carbon Disclosure Project complement formal CSR Reports with specific information that investors seek.

Company websites provide a public-facing, easy-to-access opportunity for retailers to share information about their sustainability programs.

Marketing and advertising use TV and radio — and increasingly, Internet — ads to connect with consumers about the sustainable attributes they care about most.

Product packaging can directly reach consumers about the issues they care about when they purchase a product, whether that is organic production, recycled content or the energy efficiency of appliances.

Social media engages retailers in the online dialogue with consumers that both praise and criticize companies on Facebook, Twitter and other sites and services.

In addition to those channels, more retailers are communicating about their company's sustainability programs, challenges, successes and sustainability-related attributes of products through in-store signage, intranet sites, corporate sustainability fairs and more.

Four key considerations to accompany the four steps

Above all else, a successful retail sustainability communications strategy will follow several key, guiding principles: stay positive, honest and authentic; show progress over time; think about both metrics and indicators; and tell your story yourself. If you don't tell your story, others will.

Finally, all communications must be based on real commitments, actions or results. Give your audience meaningful information, prove your commitment over time with real action, and you can engage anyone who wants to join your journey.

Clothing rack image by charnsitr via Shutterstock