Retail Sustainability expert Justin Van Der Horn, formerly of Tiffany & Co. shares exclusive insights into engaging customers with a sustainability strategy.

How To Engage Your Customers Through a Sustainability Strategy

We sat down with Justin Van Der Horn, Sustainability Strategy Consultant, VDH Sustainability and Formerly Global Sustainability at Tiffany & Co. to discuss how retail brands can connect with their customers when they're launching a new sustainability initiative.

What do you think consumers are most interested in when it comes to how sustainable their favourite retail brands are?

Customers want brands and products that authentically align with their values. I also think they want sustainability to be holistic and a more integrated part of the shopping experience. 

Customers are very smart and intuitive. They see through surface-level efforts quickly, and rightly so. They want brands to consider a full set of relevant social and environmental topics and apply them across their core business and product portfolio—not just on single-issues or separate ‘green’ product lines. Fortunately, addressing sustainability holistically is a best-case scenario for creating business value and brand value/customer loyalty.

I also think there’s a tremendous opportunity (even a responsibility) for retailers to increasingly present sustainable options. Consumers have so many choices and it can be overwhelming. At the same time, not enough of them are ‘good.’ It’s also difficult and time-consuming for even the most interested customers to make informed decisions. 

Just consider how complicated social and environmental issues can be for retailers who are experts in their field. Retailers need to make it easy for customers to shop responsibly without having a degree in sustainability.

Customers expect and deserve to be safe in the knowledge that—whether they’re picking out clothes, electronics, or food— safe and sustainable raw materials were responsibly sourced, products were ethically made, and the greatest possible ‘good’ was created. That means retailers should improve their practices to eliminate the bad choices, make good the new norm, and strive for the best, where our businesses and products enhance the world we live in.

How can retail brands find out what their consumer’s habits are when it comes to shopping sustainably both online and offline?

Retailers are often quite good at getting consumer insights from focus groups, surveys, trend analysis and other methods. Rather than assessing sustainability separately, there’s an opportunity for it to be integrated more into normal consumer insight processes. 

That way, product development, marketing, sales, strategy and other departments will have a more complete understanding of what drives their customers. Stepping back to consider big-picture trends and industry surveys can be helpful too, even though they may not be as tailored to your customers. 

That said, consumer insights and surveys only give you a snapshot in time from particular consumers’ perspectives. I think sustainability is most beneficial when it’s focused on innovation, opportunity, and the future. 

Most insights and surveys I see indicate that customers have a strong desire to shop responsibly. So, focus on the future, get ahead of the trends and capitalise on that market opportunity. Help shape better consumer habits by proactively improving the sustainability of your products and operations. 

How can retail brands effectively manage their supply chains with regards to focusing on sustainable relationships and business partnerships?

For retailers generally, their most significant social and environmental impacts and opportunities are in the supply chain. So, effective management and strong partnerships will go a long way.

Set a foundation for responsible supply chain management by committing to and aligning your supplier code of conduct to leading frameworks. Like the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and industry-specific standards, for example. Advance that by making sustainability a core pillar of supplier assessments alongside typical metrics like cost, quality, and speed. 

This goes for choosing new suppliers and assessing your current ones. If you set goals for your suppliers, include sustainability as a success factor to reinforce it as core your business and open up new opportunities for dialogue. 

These practices have been around for a while. They’re helpful, but they’re typically one direction from buyer to supplier: code, audit, corrective action and repeat. More effective supply chain management is based on two-way dialogue and deeper engagement. 

Consider how to support best practices and foster stronger relationships. Are there issues you can provide targeted training on, can you support capacity building, how can you facilitate access to information and resources or encourage improvement through recognition or incentives? 

You may also find value in engaging in multi-stakeholder partnerships, standards-setting organisations and pre-competitive collaborations. They may not always be with your direct suppliers, but you’ll build a stronger understanding of your value chain and contribute to broad improvements.

Fostering a sustainable supply chain takes effort, but retailers reap the rewards with lower reputational risk, fewer supply disruptions, better efficiency, a greater likelihood for a long-term relationship and myriad other benefits. Invest the time and effort.

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