Grocery retailers are embracing change and believe sustainability can attract more customers. But retailers are grappling with how to communicate sustainability efforts to the market. Here is how, avoiding the showmanship that too often looks like greenwashing.

Most grocery retailers around the world agree that sustainability will be a key competitive advantage in the future. Forty-two percent of the top 50 global grocery retailers have established a sustainability function, and 14 percent now have a “Chief Sustainability Officer”. 82 percent of groceries retail CEO’s cite sustainability as a key priority[1].

Hence, most grocery chains are doing several things to become more sustainable (see bullet list). 

Grocery retailing is characterized by low margins, pressing daily challenges and complex global supply chains. While sustainability fundamentally represents long-term challenges, retailers tend to focus on the near-term, urgent matters, leaving less time for fundamental changes related to sustainability.

For some the solution is to look for one-off PR-opportunities. Find ways for the media to focus on specific initiatives, large or small, symbolic or substantial.

This approach is tempting for several reasons. Firstly, sustainability is a complex territory and most customers know little about production methods, value chains etc. and how, when and why a particular tomato ended up on the shelf in front of her. In the short term, some symbolic action might do the trick.

Secondly, despite an interest in sustainable products, only 20 percent of shoppers, according to a UK survey[2], are committed to it. In other markets anectodical information indicates that the percentage is a lot lower.

Lastly, the customers tend to focus on only one topic at the time. In January they might not understand why you have plastic-wrapped each individual cucumber and tell you to stop it. In February they suddenly embrace the same cucumber because they understand that the thin layer of plastic keeps the cucumber last longer og, hence, reduce food waste. It is all about whether it is plastic og food waste that is the sustainability-flavor of the month.

However, in the long run, this will not work. The industry is too big and too important, and its actions are fundamental to the healthiness of our planet. All the customers might not get it any time soon, but a lot will, and they will demand real action and spend their grocery-money accordingly. Getting the positive messages to the market of what the industry is really doing, is getting more critical every day.

Sustainability is changing the world of grocery stores. In order to stay competitive, the retailers need both to act and to communicate. Greenwashing is a thing of the past. Now it is serious business.

The most popular tactics in achieving sustainability:

  • Reducing or eliminating plastic package
  • Banning single-use grocery bags
  • Demanding producers to increase animal welfare, particularly for meat
  • Introducing better sell-by dates and discounting products nearing the end of their shelf life
  • Donating food to eliminate waste
  • Shopping locally to reduce emissions
  • Banning particular products to protect the rainforest or other vulnerable areas
  • Making recycling easier
  • Optimizing the value-chain to improve quality and reduce carbon footprint

Our work with clients points to five critical success factors to make that happen:

  1. Make sustainability an important part of the strategic plan. Sustainability is not only about looking good. It is also about changing the way you do business. It takes courage, patience and resilience to make that happen. If it is not in your strategic plan, it will always take the back seat to the more the traditional sides of the industry.
  2. Create a sustainability narrative. The word sustainability has different connotations for people. A quick look at the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals[3] shows how broad the term is. You need to tell the market what sustainability is to you, what your priorities are, and how it is all linked to what you want your brand to be.
  3. Be transparent on what you do and why. You cannot solve every problem tomorrow and you cannot make the world a more sustainable place just on your own. Be honest about your sustainability-dilemmas, challenge the customers to do their part and tell them why things don’t change as fast as they sometimes would like. If you truly show that you care, the customers will be rather patient.
  4. Define communication-KPI’s. You need measurable objectives in order to know if you are moving in the right direction in the customers mind – and at the right speed. It is not about “making some PR”. Rather it is an integrated communications strategy using all available channels including those normally used only for price promotions.
  5. Talk when the customers are willing to listening. The customers rarely have the same focus as you. You need to communicate your initiatives when the topic is or can be on the customers mind. That is not being an opportunist, but rather respecting that your customers have a lot on their plate. You might be somewhat important sometimes, but their local grocery store is hardly the customers epicenter in life.