NRF — Sustainability, which has been a buzzword in retail for years, took a bit of a backseat in 2020 as retailers turned their attention to tackling a global health crisis. It's just one of the elements of a larger social responsibility strategy, though, and protests over the summer after several high-profile killings of Black people by police brought to light others that retailers should be focused on as well.
In discussing how to form a successful social responsibility strategy at NRF's virtual Big Show on Wednesday, Ulta President Dave Kimbell pointed to the importance of shared purpose within a retailer to ensure efforts will last. That includes having a clear mission for the company and dedicating resources to tracking metrics and goal progress.
"It can't just be a response or short-term action," Kimbell said. "This needs to be built into the core of your company and your values and where you're headed. And I think that's largely because consumers are really expecting it. They're making choices on who they choose to align with based on the values of that company."
Kendra Clarke, vice president of Data Science and Product Development at cultural consultancy Sparks & Honey, echoed similar thoughts, saying that employees should be involved in identifying and driving forward social responsibility initiatives because leaders don't always know what it's like to be on the front lines of some issues.
The larger point, though, was that retailers should be actively considering their social responsibility strategies, not just reacting to problems as they come. Ron Jarvis, chief sustainability officer at The Home Depot, said that having a social responsibility consideration is "pretty much table stakes" in the current retail environment, whereas a few decades ago retailers were for the most part just responding to stakeholder pressure on the subject rather than proactively seeking out ways to better themselves.
It's also something that Home Depot considers when companies pitch the retailer on selling in its stores.
"In today's world, sustainability, responsibility is a competitive measurement," Jarvis said. "It's a measurement that we look at with our suppliers and we know that our customers, consumers and social investors and other investors look at this and say, 'Is this a company that I want to invest in, that knows what their impacts are for the long term?'"
To that end, Jarvis goes by the mantra: "know business, no surprises." For Home Depot, that means understanding what the company's impacts are — namely: carbon emissions, chemical exposure, deforestation, water use, waste and recycling — and finding ways to start addressing them in advance, before they reach a breaking point. Effectively, the plan is to look ahead so that the retailer has more time to work out how to address issues.