Spotlight on 2013 Retailer Sustainability Trends


At Strategic Sustainability Consulting, we work mainly with manufacturers and suppliers to big retail companies. So understanding and responding to retailer sustainability priorities, approaches, and standards is key to our success with clients. That's why we were eager to dive into the 2013 RILA Retail Sustainability Report.

What Is RILA?

The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) is the trade association for the world’s largest and most innovative retail companies. RILA members include more than 200 retailers, product manufacturers, and service suppliers, which together account for more than $1.5 trillion in annual sales, millions of American jobs, and more than 100,000 stores, manufacturing facilities, and distribution centers domestically and abroad. 

RSI engages retail sustainability executives to share best practices, develop new processes, and communicate their efforts to the industry’s most crucial stakeholders. RILA uses its annual conference, benchmark studies, collaborative  partnerships, and research on behalf of retail sustainability interests to achieve the objectives set by the five sustainability topics listed above. 

What is the 2013 RILA Sustainability Report?

The report says it best:

The objective of this report is only to act as a snapshot of the industry’s sustainability programs. Between the publication of our first Retail Sustainability Report in January, 2012 and the publication of this report, we have found that the industry is continuing to drive progress and increase accountability on the most critical issues. Also, through this report, we want to bring to your attention the significant business benefits retailers have achieved from their sustainability endeavors, ranging from improved employee loyalty to decreased costs to more resilient supply chains. As you will see illustrated in the subsequent chapters, these benefits are fueling the continued development of sustainability programs over time. However, program development does not come without challenge. 

What are the biggest takeaways in the 2013 RILA Sustainability Report?

According to the report, five characteristics allow a retailer to effectively initiate, fuel, and accelerate sustainability programs:

  1. Executive engagement
  2. Investment in people and systems
  3. Measurement and tracking
  4. Goal setting
  5. Storytelling

Incidentally, these are the same elements that we talk about with our clients -- who supply these big retailers. See a common thread?


Top-performing companies have sustainability teams that are led by a vice president or someone in a higher position and average nine team members in size. The teams’ primary roles are to orchestrate internal efforts, communicate with outside stakeholders, develop strategies, and interact with senior managers. And to do so, they have set up working relationships across the organization, focusing on public and government relations, the supply chain, merchandising, facilities, real estate, and construction. 


Most companies act on sustainability investments that they expect to generate a two- to three-year payback.


The typical planning horizon for sustainability strategies is five years.


Most retailers measure energy, fuel, material usage, and waste generation. More than 25 percent more retailers will begin to measure code of conduct compliance, water usage, suppliers audited for social compliance, renewable energy generation, and chemicals of concern over the next two years.

Focus on the Supply Chain

Naturally, we spent the most time looking at the chapter on Supply Chain Operations, which revealed nuggets of gold like these:

  • Supply chain improvements have focused on transportation, materials including chemicals of concern, and packaging design. Managing all aspects of the product life cycle, from design through use and disposal will become increasingly prevalent practices over the next two years.
  • Transparency into the social and environmental impacts of product supply chains is a growing practice.
  • Risk mitigation is a major benefit of supply chain sustainability programs.

Read the Whole Report

The report (46 pages in all) is chock full of charts and graphs and details on different kinds of stakeholder engagement, the payback of different sustainability initiatives, and how different sustainability teams are organized. It is WELL worth the read -- whether you are a retailer, supplier, or consumer. Download the entire report for free from the RILA website.

Don't forget to participate in a Twitter chat today (March 7th, 2013) at 1pm ET, using the #RILAchat hashtag. The RILA Sustainabiltiy team will discuss the report's findings and retail sustainability programs generally, and SSC President Jennifer Woofter (@jenniferwoofter) will be chiming in from our perspective too!