Chapter 4

Sustainability and the ethical consumer

One characteristic that unites all our disruptors is their commitment to ethics and sustainability. Responsible retail brands are increasingly having to interrogate every aspect of their supply chain and operation to ensure they minimise their environmental footprint and treat people with respect.

Those that fail to do so risk a backlash from customers. Retail Week research released in March 2022 revealed that the majority of consumers (55%) are more likely to buy from a retailer or brand with strong ethical and sustainable credentials. Gen Z, in particular, is more likely to be sustainability conscious when it comes to buying decisions.

Investors, too, are increasingly giving weight to businesses’ net-zero commitments.

Jones says sustainability was at the heart of Skin + Me’s decision-making process from day one. “We knew we wanted to design packaging that could give customers exactly the right amount of product every day, minimising wastage, and something that could be easily recycled, too. In addition, all of our formulations had to be vegan and cruelty-free.”

When the business looked at the packaging that was readily available, most contained high levels of plastic. “Most skincare products today still come in single-use plastic bottles with pumps. On average, they use six types of plastic and a steel spring – which makes it virtually impossible to recycle,” Jones explains. “So we invested a large amount of time and money in developing our innovative aluminium Daily Doser packaging in house, from scratch.”

Businesses are also looking to build sustainability into the manufacturing process. Innocent’s new carbon-neutral factory in Rotterdam will use electricity from renewable energy sources, including solar panels and two on-site wind turbines. Water use will be reduced through the installation of a cleaning system that uses mostly air, rather than water. The water used on site will be returned to Rotterdam’s water network through an on-site treatment plant, while rainwater will be used to flush the toilets.

For businesses looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact, Microsoft’s Shave says data can hold many of the answers. “All of your buildings and assets are constantly churning out data about things like energy and water usage. These kinds of things are now measurable so collecting that data and having a dashboard view of it is quite a simple thing to do. Once you have sight of that, you can take action and make improvements.”

Logistics is another focus for brands looking to reduce their environmental impact. Innocent, for example, is targeting transport emissions. Juice that needs to be distributed by road will be transported using the world’s first heavy-duty, zero-emission electric trucks.

Meanwhile, Bloom & Wild is rethinking the traditional distribution model for flowers, which usually involves the product passing through a large number of hands between being cut and reaching the end recipient – a journey that can take 10 to 14 days. Each step adds cost and waste, which increases the environmental impact and ultimately shortens the life of the flowers in the vase.

To combat this, Bloom & Wild works with partner growers in Kenya that ship directly to a cargo airport in the UK, where the flowers are rehydrated and conditioned, packed and given to Royal Mail to be delivered within three days or less, meaning customers get to enjoy them for longer.

The brand has won plaudits from customers and other retailers for its responsible approach to marketing. Back in 2019, the business started receiving requests from customers to be kept off their Mother’s Day mailing lists. Now Bloom & Wild makes sure customers who have opted out see no products related to that sensitive occasion on the website or the app. It also began a campaign to bring other brands and businesses on board, gifting them with tools to remove mentions of certain products for customers.

Concerns around the concentration of corporate power and inequality are also spawning new ways of doing more ethical business.

Vanderbilt says’s entire reason for existence is to try to provide consumers with a more ethical way to buy books online

“Our biggest commitment is to the independent bookshops who benefit from each and every sale on the platform and who receive the majority of the profits,” she says.

As sustainability and ethics rise up the priority list for consumers, brands need to be on the front foot. Not only must their business models stand up to scrutiny, but they must learn how to communicate this to customers and leverage it as a point of difference.