Retailers sustainability RILA

Who ever thought that Home Depot and Lowe’s would be sitting in the same room to discuss anything? That was one of the surprises for me at the recent Retail Sustainability Conference RILA 2013. Retailers who compete fiercely are willing to come together to brainstorm ideas on how to create a better world—and a better customer experience — through sustainability.

The three-day summit provided industry executives with educational opportunities, exposure to emerging trends and insight into successful retail sustainability initiatives.

While topics such as conflict minerals, green leasing and waste streams were on the agenda, I was surprised at the three threads that kept surfacing in the breakouts, keynotes and closings.

They were how to enroll people, build partnerships and leverage relationships. The top executives of national chains as well as their service providers touched on these threads no matter their topic.

Enrolling People

A consistent thread was how to enroll people in the green vision for your organization. Several CEOs suggested that you need credibility to get buy-in throughout the organization to create lasting change. Ask yourself if you are presenting a green company overhaul based on talk or promises, or if you are proposing to build a solid foundation for your green initiative through tangible actions and engagement with employees at all levels. Speakers cautioned that making the business case through metrics isn’t the only way to gain commitment. Qualitative measures, such as telling a compelling story of a successful initiative at another company, can be incredibly persuasive.

Building Partnerships

This was the biggest revelation for me. Call me naïve but I never thought competitors would be brainstorming together on what they can do to make the world a better place.

It was refreshing for someone who spends her day working in sustainability to know that so many companies are willing to collaborate. Keynote speakers flashed slides with company logos showing who was working with them on their particular initiatives.

I was blown away by how many of the same players were involved in multiple task forces, committees, non-profits, etc. The key takeaway was to learn from your peers that you’re not alone and the wheel already exists, so no need to reinvent it.

Another key message was that by pooling resources, companies can do exciting things to move the conversation forward. A standout example is the Wasting Water is Weird campaign. Bosch, Lowe’s, Kohler and P&G sponsored public service TV spots to change behavior about water conservation.

The campaign used humor to drive home an important message. Here is one of the  humorous – and weird – TV spots.

Leveraging Relationships

Clearly relationships need to be built in both enrollment and partnerships. But to kick-start your green program, work first with the people you know best.

In a session on green leasing, the speaker from Family Dollar said the discount chain works with storeowners with whom they already have trusting relationships. They will be potentially more open to change than a new lessee.

While outside the conference the retailers may be vying for the same customers, it was heartening to listen to speaker after speaker share their company’s sustainability strategies. They understood the most important challenge they face is promoting a sustainable environment in which their companies, their employees and their customers can thrive.

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