Articles

The Future’s So Bright – Green!

Before we get too far into the subject of environmental sustainability and what it means to retail I must declare a few things. Firstly I am an optimist and believe that human beings have an incredible capability to solve any problem or issue that is thrown at us given the necessary enablers. Secondly I am not a fan of taking media headlines at face value. I believe that if something is of importance, you should do the research and form your own opinion.

I believe that environmental sustainability is of such significance to all of us that we should undertake our own research and come to our own informed conclusions about what is really happening and what each one of us should do as a result. I have been involved in green issues since the 1980’s and have continued to keep myself informed with the latest information.

Let me share with you what I have found – not to shape your opinion, but to stimulate you to go and discover your own truths.

Media headlines may grab attention, but they are often misleading. For example many media articles focus on “The Planet is in Peril” and “Our Fight Against Global Warming”. What I have found is that the planet is not in peril. Human survival is. And global warming is not something we can stop. One of my favourite information sources is a man named Dr. James Lovelock. You’ll find his website at www.ecolo.org/lovelock. He is one of the world’s leading environmental scientists and the man who developed “Gaia Theory” which describes the earth as a living organism.

Lovelock argues strongly that planet earth will survive for eons while individual species come and go. The issue for human beings is deciding that we don’t want to go the way of the dinosaurs.

What I have also found out about global warming is that we are coming to the end of the 4th Ice Age. An Ice Age is described as a period that sustains continual continental ice sheets like we find in the Arctic and Antarctic. These are melting in accordance with a natural cycle that has occurred at least 4 times before – that we know of. While current human activity may be having some accelerating effect on the rate of warming, there is nothing we can do to stop this natural cycle – as this crude diagram of mine tries to explain.

The inescapable truth you eventually get to when you do the research is that we must confront the problem of escalating human populations and rapidly growing consumption (in particular of food) at a time when available land mass will decline in the same period as air quality, water quality and soil quality are deteriorating.

Planet Earth has a great spring cleaning process which rids itself of unwanted species or species who have overstayed their welcome and we are rapidly depleting the very things that support human survival. Far from being sidetracked by things we cannot affect – like global warming – we need to rapidly address the things we can. The biggest and most difficult of these is our contemporary consumption patterns.

The good news is that we have never been more technologically or scientifically equipped to develop solutions. Science can do enormous things in terms of energy production, crop yields and the like. Human beings have shown throughout history that while for the most part we are in a state of organised anarchy, when push comes to shove we can work together to overcome enormous obstacles.

So how might this all play out at retail? Nobody is 100% sure but let me propose a hypothesis in three parts: – The Forces at Play – What We Have Learned From History – The Likely Future Outcomes

The Forces At Play
Most contemporary research shows that the vast majority of people – right around the world – are aware of a need to be environmentally concerned and have a genuine sentiment that is in support of green initiatives and our need to do something. However, there is a huge gap between sentiment and behaviour. The things that lead to behavioural change are what I call the ‘Four P’s of change’ – Political Forces (at both the grass roots and organised political party level), Propaganda Forces (media), Prosperity Forces (economic) and Physiological Forces (social psychology and forced physical behaviour). These forces work in a continual cycle of reinforcement that works something like this:- – Political – from radical fringe to mainstream body politic – Propaganda – from protest to prime time – Prosperity – from irritation to industry – Physiology – from stand-out to stand-in

This cycle then fills in the void from sentiment to behaviour change by adding emotional motivators (pleasure or pain), economic motivators (pleasure or pain), and physical motivators (pleasure or pain). When the motivators are strong enough, the behaviour shifts. Without them – even though sentiment is high – it is “someone else’s responsibility” to do it for me.

What We Have Learned From History
Prior to the ascendency of the Judeo-Christian religions, so called “pagan” religions celebrated a connection to nature. Some religions that survive today still do. But human DNA is hot-wired with a connection to and celebration of nature. This is increasingly being rediscovered and made relevant again. Human change has also happened on a mass-scale and many points in history – often due to tragedy or impending tragedy such as a world war. But when motivation is high, human beings respond and act decisively by changing behaviour.

The high consumption model that we have today is only a recent trend and has been fuelled by the rise of profit through volume models which cause over-consumption and wastage and by the massive rise in population and consumption in developing markets. With the growing impact of the “4P’s of Change” social and environmental conscience will see retail moving back to traditional and more familiar historical territory with a return to classic merchandising skills. Who knows, we may even stumble on the cure for obesity as consumption patterns are forced to change.

Likely Future Outcomes At Retail
In the short term, consumer sentiment will remain high but behaviour will lag. The first shift will be industry led as our regulators, our staff and in some cases our investor’s push for change. Products and services with dubious environmental credentials will cloud the more positive initiatives but will increasingly be eradicated. The confusion of claims (eg carbon offsets) will begin to be replaced by simple, universal language and measures that consumers can comprehend and support. New industry segments will begin to emerge as both government and media turn up the heat and put the spotlight on what has to happen.

In the medium term, consumer self education will increase rapidly and the push for retailers to “do it for me” will intensify dramatically. Product and retailer selection preference will begin to bite and consumers will begin to substitute rather than modify consumption. Social pressure – similar to the anti-smoking affect – will begin to rise forcing conformity and government action will begin to become intrusive through regulation and penalty.

In the longer term, the consumer will eventually take control and do it for themselves. We will see behaviour modification on a mass scale as the “glutenous consumption” trend that supported the boom of profit through volume models is rejected in favour of a search for quality and “less is more”. Terms like “fit for purpose”, “disposable fashion” and their ilk will be relegated to text-book case studies on the history of retail as real innovation sees us shift from deprivation to substitution.

Provenance will mean everything – how it is made, where it is made and what affect making it has had. The rules of global sourcing will change as consumers immerse in the story behind the products and services they buy. Science and technology will answer the call and human beings will establish a better, more sustainable relationship with the natural world that supports our survival.

For retailers we will see a new emerging consumer. A consumer who:- – is connected to the world they live in – celebrates nature & their place in nature – is conscious of their resource consumption impact – controls their household/family consumption – acts to create a better future outcome – is motivated to change the world with their wallet – is appreciative of quality – is open to positive change & innovation – embraces technological solutions – makes informed decisions – is in transition from cynicism to self-responsibility

The emerging retailer will be one who: – sees themselves as a big part of the solution – is connected to the world we live in – celebrates the natural environment & our place in it – is conscious of resource consumption impact – acts to create a better future outcome – changes the world with their business – ranges products which measure up – is open to positive change & innovation – embraces technological solutions – makes informed decisions

When it comes to survival – humans do.

Science and technology can and will deliver expedited modification and substitution which in many areas will not require deprivation. If you want evidence of this just go to www.teslamotors.com.

Retail has a major opportunity to lift, grow and prosper through change as we always have. The dominant retail experience will move beyond a fixation with “profit through volume” into to one based on productivity, diversity and immersion. While we are already focussed on efficiency, what we use as key performance indicators of efficiency will change.

Retail will be more colourful and more fun and customer relationships will deepen as a whole new “trust” bond is formed. Customer communication will change and promotion will be based on entirely different stimulus. This is the moment for good retailers to become great. The future is bright – green.