There is a growing recognition of the fact that modern consumption patterns - brought in by retailing activities since the 90's - have a significant impact on the environment as the growing middle class in the world (especially in emerging economies) is consuming more and more. This, on one hand, is putting severe stress on the limited available resource base and, on the other hand, is resulting in mounting waste discharges to the environment.

Shifting to more sustainable consumption and production (SCP) patterns was therefore adopted as one of the overarching objectives of sustainable development by the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

The retail sector plays a very important role - not only as a major driver of the global economy, but also as the most crucial link between suppliers and consumers - in effecting this global shift.

While the retail sector's contribution in effecting such a shift to SCP would be beneficial for the society at large, this could also make a valuable business case for the sector itself. By promoting new, safer, value added environment-friendly products to the customers, the retailers can tap a small but fast-growing niche market segment, and enjoy guaranteed customer base and loyalty. Reduced potential liabilities, elevated company image and thus enhanced brand value of the retailer are some other intangible yet important business aspects that can be achieved.

The challenge of sustainable retailing is twofold:

  1. To ensure that internal operations are sustainable; and
  2. To influence suppliers to produce and customers to consume sustainably.

As such, the retail sector can contribute to SCP activities, in the following three main areas:

  1. Cleaner Production and Environmental Management Systems
    The retail sector can first control and manage its own environmental and social impacts through implementing environmental management systems for energy/water conservation, waste management, logistics, recycling programs, etc.
  2. Supply Chain Management
    Retailers can co-operate with their suppliers and favour the development of products featuring enhanced environmental and/or social attributes. Efforts such as greening the supply chain and implementing green purchasing can encourage suppliers to develop eco-friendly products, and to provide information on the sustainability aspects of their products notably through ecolabels.
  3. Education and Information of Customers
    Retailers can encourage consumers to purchase eco-friendly products as well as provide advice on the use and disposal of the products and offer facilities and services such as take-back systems for batteries, reusable bags, etc.

Recognizing the retail sector as the key player in the promotion of SCP, UNEP has launched a project supported by the German Ministry of Environment, Natural Conservation and Nuclear Safety, which focused on the retail sector in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. This project aims to ensure that the retail sector will increasingly comply with sustainability guidelines at each stage of the production and distribution process, without jeopardizing its economic performance. It also attempts to leverage the retail sector in influencing consumer behavior to shift to sustainable consumption patterns. As the outcome of this project, UNEP is currently developing a Guidance Manual/Training Kit/Resource CD-ROM to facilitate sustainability initiatives in the retail sector.