11 July 2022

From box-ticking to business transformation - how ESG is shaping the evolution of the retail sector

Richard Beasley, BWP CEO

When I reflect back over my 30 years working in fashion and retail marketing, the sector has seen many significant changes. From the merging of real-life and Metaverse shopping experiences, to innovation in-store, the industry has evolved to allow greater commercial gains than ever before. 

However, perhaps the most significant – and vital – of all these developments has been the advances in Environmental, Social Governance standards (ESG) and the way these are adopted and communicated.

What started as a need to act and do business in a more environmentally friendly way led to businesses looking at their energy consumption and carbon footprint, but back then it could have been perceived as a box ticking exercise to meet required standards, rather than making radical changes. 

A lot of the reason these things didn’t get off the ground in the past has been consumers driving prices down. There has been an ongoing tug of war between running an ethical, sustainable and environmentally focused business and covering costs.

Today, people have come to expect standards of sustainability and they want it to be made easier for them to shop in good conscience. Whether it’s getting the basics right like having clearly signed recycling points and giving shoppers more sustainable options within the retail mix, to more long-term initiatives such as charitable partnerships, championing inclusivity and giving back to the community.

I am proud to say that over the past ten years we have worked with some of the early pioneers; one of my favourite ESG campaigns was for British Gas Business back in 2013, aiming to reduce its customers’ energy use and helping to launch its ground-breaking sustainable office in Oxford. 

Where are we now?

The most significant shift I have seen since that time is that ESG has now become something really important and meaningful at the heart of every business and is increasingly held as an absolute priority, gaining particular momentum over the past five years. 

An initial focus on sustainability has grown into a complete overhaul of how we think, act and conduct ourselves across all areas, from building and supporting an inclusive workforce to creating a legacy and having a positive impact that goes beyond the bottom line.

Where retail properties once had a CSR programme with just one or two siloed initiatives, now community engagement and social responsibility is being weaved into business plan objectives as a golden thread running throughout, from the physical environment and staffing strategy to the ethical and sustainable sourcing of products, food and beverage. 

When it comes to the G of ESG, many well run businesses - both retail destinations and brands - have always had governance, but bringing it to the forefront of Board and marketing meetings, writing papers not just because we need to be seen to be doing it but because we’re committed to making positive change – that’s the shift. 

We’ve actually always been focused on these elements – but have we done it in a meaningful, considered and joined up way? The head of compliance used to be seen as the barrier but now they are the person who challenges us to think and be better.

We work with owner and asset manager backed programmes, helping them to make ESG a part of their blueprint strategy and communicating it in the right way to their customers, tenants and employees. 

A best-practice example is our client Docks Bruxsel, which holds the BREEAM certificate of excellence award for sustainability due to a host of clever features, including solar panels, rainwater harvesting, and even has beehives providing homes to 80,000 honeybees on the centre roof.

Part of our role now is about making those policies and initiatives come alive – using marketing language, infographics and video to aid understanding and create engagement. Internal behaviour is as important as the policy.

Our role in a client’s ESG journey 

More than ever this year, the briefs we are responding to include ESG and sustainability as core priorities. In a recent new business pitch, our commitment to sustainability formed part of the evaluation and agency selection criteria.

As marketeers, this creates exciting opportunities to think and act differently and we are now building ESG initiatives into our strategies, planning and creative.

To give a few recent examples, our team have created bee keeping clubs to engage with schools and educate children on sustainability, we ran a ‘Beauty Unfiltered’ campaign celebrating unique and inclusive beauty for Trafford Centre, launched IKEA’s new sustainable concept store in Hammersmith (which has just been awarded a BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ certification), through immersive experiential events, and worked closely with local planners to place tramline stops next to Trafford Centre to encourage use of public transport.

Again, another great case study is Portus Retail bringing the Elephant Parade to Docks Bruxsel, raising awareness for elephant conservation and raising vital funds.

And whilst these campaigns are purpose-led, they still create massive awareness, engage the community and ultimately drive footfall and sales. ESG is becoming an essential and powerful tool in marketing and one that should be front and centre of everything we do. 

The future

Although I’ve seen great change over the past few years, let’s be honest – there’s still a long way to go. No-one is perfect and we recognise that businesses can’t just put a new roof on at the drop of a hat, but they have to make sure they are telling customers that they are doing something about it in an authentic and tangible way, sharing clear goals and milestones and taking both internal and external audiences with them on that journey. 

As an agency, we have created an advisory team who are both steering us as a business, as well as working with significant industry players, on how we evolve not just our client’s offering in this space but our own model and purpose too. 

It is something that we recognise we are still not perfect at ourselves, but it is a daily discussion point and a key strategic pillar, guiding both short and long term decisions we are making about the business. 

Many of our clients are now coming to us for help because they are putting some brilliant initiatives in place but need an overarching marketing and communications strategy to tie everything together, or a creative way to bring an ESG policy to life.

If ESG is a priority for you, or you need help with that next step, I would be more than happy to have a chat. You can get in touch with me on LinkedIn or via the contact below.

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