There are countless guides for how to have a sustainable Christmas, but very little is said about sustainability. But there are multiple ways both retail and consumer firms and consumers themselves can make a real difference this Christmas. Jen Nixon explores how.

This year’s Christmas advert from the British supermarket chain, Iceland1 made an unexpected and original attempt to bring sustainability to the forefront of our minds at Christmas. The now-banned TV advert showed a young orangutan and its rainforest habitat being destroyed for palm oil production. The supermarket used a video made by Greenpeace to pledge the removal of palm oil from its own-brand foods, however, Clearcast, a non-governmental organisation which pre-approves television advertising, banned the advert for being too political.

But isn’t Christmas the perfect time to raise awareness of the plight of sustainability and environmental issues caused by the retail and consumer industries?

I wrote in my recent article ‘Green is the New Black‘ how retailers were moving towards sustainability in order to survive the fall of the high street. However, can retailers and consumer firms continue to drive their sustainability agenda in a climate where they promote people buying new, and sometimes unwanted, gifts, dramatically increase their carbon footprint with the higher number of deliveries and use enough packaging to nearly destroy another rainforest.

Can retailers and the consumer industry promote a merry, sustainable Christmas?

It is widely known the retail and consumer industries thrive at Christmas, for example, 80% of a famous British department store’s revenue comes at this time. But the increase in purchasing new products leads to an increase in the carbon footprint.

According to the Sustainability Consortium, physical products account for 60% of Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions, roughly two-thirds of deforestation, and over 70% of child labour2. This is a massive impact to our environment.

I was a savvy shopper and recently ordered a number of my Christmas gifts during the Black Friday deals. I decided to be green and pick up my items in person via public transport. However, I was shocked to find each of the 7 (!) items from the same department store had all been packaged individually in sealed plastic bags and then put in plastic shopping bags and a cardboard box for my collection – undoing all the environmentally friendly steps I had tried to take.

Whilst certain firms are making great leaps towards more sustainable supply chains, there is more they can do to promote this around the holiday time:

  1. Building a sustainable brand: more and more new brands are using sustainability as their USP, for example, the Honest Company and Burt’s Bees. They put their ethical supply chain at the forefront, which consumers see immediately, and the conscious shopper will buy this every time.
  2. Work with other sustainable companies in your supply chain: go step by step to become sustainable, it may be overwhelming or a cost burden to start from scratch or go all out at once. There are plenty of ways to start throughout the supply chain, for example looking at the partners you choose to source your material through to using ethical delivery drivers, such as ASOS’ recent partnership with Gnewt, who use 100% electric vehicles, which are particularly needed at this busy time.
  3. Learn from others: as the voice of sustainability grows louder, there are more and more advocacy groups and organisations you can join, for example, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition or Walmart’s Sustainability Index Program. Sustainability consultants and industry certifications are also other positive ways to raise your voice and be heard above other retailers who are all vying for attention at this time of the year.
  4. Set targets and measure against them: for example, a target to reduce emissions. If these are published, particularly around periods of shopping peaks such as Black Friday and Christmas, then consumers will come to you.

Consumers can play their part with the industry too

Online sales can be argued to be more environmentally friendly; one delivery driver will create less of a footprint than multiple separate customer journeys in and out of the shops. However, this is only the case when shoppers aren’t going in to visit the stores and looking at the products beforehand, and they must ensure they are home when items are delivered to avoid multiple redeliveries. Additionally, this is only the case when consumers don’t buy multiple items with the intention of returning the majority.

Whilst the retail and consumer industry can take further steps to ensure their packaging is 100% recyclable, consumers must also ensure they then put these packages in the appropriate recycling bins. Furthermore, wrapping paper isn’t recyclable, so retailers and consumers should consider other ways to promote and wrap gifts, such as by using brown paper.

Giving back

Younger generations are pushing the sustainability agenda and it is now in the popular press more than ever. Progressive steps are being taken all the time, such as the Commons Environmental Audit Committee examination3 on the impact of clothes and the Fashion Revolution4, a not-for-profit global movement campaign for greater transparency in the fashion supply chain. In this landscape, retailers and the consumer industry will be rewarded by consumers for their sustainable choices.

And with the increase in sales during the festive season, the Christmas holidays should be a time when people highlight and push the sustainability agenda – it is the season of goodwill after all!


Jennifer is a principal in our retail team. She has experience working on large change and transformation projects.