I talk a lot on this blog about how customer power is leading the slow but inexorable shift towards a greener, more sustainable high street. But that's only half the story. Retailers need to be on board, as well--and it seems, they need to be one step ahead of their customer's wishes.
At a conference last month hosted by The Start Initiative, a charity to promote sustainable living chaired by Prince Charles, the problems and challenges faced by retailers in this new arena were thrown into sharp relief. Large brands like Asda and M&S are reporting that their customers are looking for information on sustainable products. But at the same time they're expecting the stores to lead the way.
This kind of public information, which until recently would have been seen as a government responsibility, is more likely these days to be dealt with by the retail sector. Whatever we think of that shift in educational focus, it's an opportunity for switched-on brands to show their customers that they share values and concerns.
The trick is how you introduce and present yourself. Come across as preachy or worse, fake, and there's trouble in store. The key, it seems, is a soft touch, allowing change to emerge slowly.
Adam Elman, head of delivery for Plan A and sustainable business at Marks & Spencer, puts it best when he says:
"The key is to be one step ahead of the customer, not two. Otherwise they won't come with you."
Baby steps, then. Plan A is a good example of this, as most of the changes M&S are making to create a sustainable business model are taking place behind the scenes, and over a five year period.
Clever ways of getting the customer to adopt new ways of thinking towards their purchases have benefits for everyone. For example, the M&S partnership with Oxfam, where donated clothes trigger a discount voucher, keeps the brand and it's values in the customers mind, sparks a return visit to the store and keeps perfectly good clothes out of landfill.
The green High Street is still a long way off. But it's great to see big-name brands taking the challenge seriously, and helping to lead the way.