The Role of Retailers in the Transition Towards Sustainable Consumption and Production

Retailers have a large role in promoting sustainable consumption and production, occupying a unique position in the lifecycle chain of products as a 'gatekeeper' between producers and consumers. They can potentially play a big role in furthering the sustainability of consumption and production.

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Retailers offer a huge range of products and are in direct contact with a large network of suppliers, giving them the opportunity to stimulate the manufacturing and development of more sustainable products. Through their interactions with consumers, retailers can influence the kind of products that are bought and how they are disposed of.

An example of this is through choice influencing by making ‘eco-labelled’ products available and visible. Also, by focusing on the in-house environmental management of their facilities, transportation and logistics, they can directly reduce the environmental impacts from their operations.

As the retail sector becomes more concentrated, particularly in some Nordic countries, the potential grows for an effective entry point for policy intervention as opposed to reaching out to thousands of producers and millions of consumers.

From the retailer’s perspective, possible environmental initiatives can be divided into three categories: 1. What retailers choose to sell and how it is produced (upstream activities in the product chain). 2. How retailers sell (in-store activities). 3. How retailers communicate with consumers (downstream activities in the product chain).

In the EU and in the Nordic countries in particular, retailers have launched a number of environmental initiatives related to the interaction of shops, suppliers and consumers.  In 2008, the EU established the European Retail Forum as a body where best practices on increasing sustainability could be shared as well as the identification of opportunities and barriers.