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Economic challenges should not dissuade retailer sustainability


The economic challenges sweeping the country have been tough, but, like most things in life, it’s not the challenging times that define you, but what you do during them. For leaders in the retail industry the last few years have led to great innovation, providing the retail industry every opportunity to reinvent in areas across their operations including in the area of environmental sustainability.

Over the past five years, retailers have realized the competitive advantages to be gained through environmental sustainability. And as a result, we have seen a boom in retailers’ commitment toward, and investment in, sustainability. Though there is still more to do, they are leading the charge and making great progress.

Here at the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) we wanted to take a closer look at just what is being done and what the next steps entail. Over the last nine months we have conducted a series of research projects that have resulted in some valuable industry takeaways.

These findings are part of a larger initiative to develop the first industry-wide Retail Industry Sustainability Report that will be released later this fall. Additionally, RILA will hold its fourth annual Retail Sustainability Conference on Oct. 12 to 14 in Orlando Fla. Here RILA will continue to build on the themes of the research and other industry trends through RILA’s educational content and interactive conference sessions. In addition to covering the key aspects of sustainability and compliance for the retail industry like energy and waste reduction, product and supply chain engagement, we are integrating the leadership skills executives need to succeed: building internal resources, leveraging external resources, communicating, and collaborating.

Designed to highlight sustainability leadership in the retail sector, the industry-wide report will give insight into the challenges and the vision for the industry’s future. It aims to provide the broader retail industry with ways to act on sustainability through framing the critical issues, sharing examples of leading practices, and introducing future industry trends.

Additionally, throughout the year RILA has honed in on three specific areas of research from the report and released the initial findings to the public. These include the retail landlord-tenant relationship, product supplier engagement for sustainability, and employee engagement.

The first project was around the relationship between landlords and retailers, and took place in June when retailers and landlords came together in Washington, D.C. at a meeting hosted by RILA. The goal was to find opportunities for collaboration that ultimately drive cost savings and enhanced shopping experiences. The meeting revealed that they share many key building-lifecycle priorities. Those objectives include: construction practices that capitalize on energy efficiency; lease structures designed to promote energy and waste reduction; and operational strategies that continuously improve energy and recycling performance. In the coming months the two groups have set a series of priorities and initiatives around these findings and will begin to put what they have learned into practice. They also plan to report back later next year with the results of their work.

Our research around engaging suppliers in sustainability was released in August and revealed that the retail industry is spearheading the transition to more transparent, communicative product supply chains. Retailers are constantly looking for opportunities in their product supply chains to cut costs and be more innovative. Further, they want to address the needs of employees, regulators, investors, customers and other stakeholders. This evolving supply chain strategy is rooted in company-wide efforts to be more strategic, proactive and efficient and is changing the relationship between retailers and product suppliers into a more closely knit partnership.

Finally, our employee engagement research determined that retailers view the collective energy of their workforce as one of their most crucial assets in moving the needle on sustainability. The research helped answer some key questions such as: What are the components of a successful program? And how do retailers garner the attention and participation of their employees?

The full Retail Industry Sustainability Report will expand on our landlord, product supplier, and employee engagement research to discuss the full suite of sustainability activities: the retail operational footprint, workforce diversity and health and wellness, products & supply chain engagement, and community and philanthropic engagement.

To supplement our research and provide a venue for discussion and further action, this year’s Retail Sustainability Conference Oct. 12 to 14 in Orlando Fla., will focus on key challenges and opportunities for the retail sustainability community. Helping executives in the industry to keep current with industry trends, learn from their peers and get a sense of what will be next for the industry and sustainability. Most importantly, the conference provides participants with the tools and knowledge they need to lead their organizations in the area of sustainability.

This year RILA will start the 2011 conference with an important meeting of the central force behind RILA’s sustainability program, the Retail Sustainability Initiative (RSI), which has made a commitment to driving leadership in retail sustainability. At this year’s meeting the group will have a conversation about what it would take to achieve a higher level of supply chain collaboration around waste reduction and efficiencies. The goal is to engage practitioners from companies across the consumer products supply chain in a dialogue around a zero waste economy, both by leveraging existing tools and resources, and by innovating.

Attendees will also have the opportunity to experience three unique pre-conference events.

First, there will be a behind-the-scenes look at Universal Orlando Resorts' sustainability programs in action. Second, a leadership training session, conducted by Darcy Winslow, founder of DSW collective and Sara Schley, founder of Seed Systems, that will empower attendees with the skills they need to transform how their organization integrates sustainability principles at every level of their business. And finally, a hazardous materials management course, led by Cedric Calhoun, executive director of the Alliance of Hazardous Materials Professionals that will give attendees the background necessary to understand retail’s basic hazardous material compliance needs.

Kenneth Bonning, senior EVP Kohl’s Corp. will initiate following day’s events, kicking off our first full day of educational content. Bonning will share the Kohl's "roadmap" to sustainability that ultimately results in cost savings and resource conservation. He will cover sustainable operations, stakeholder engagement and supply chain sustainability.

Other sessions include: Building a Toolkit for Social Responsibility; IT Systems to Manager Energy & Environmental Impacts and Opportunities; Leadership Competencies in the Age of Sustainability Concerns; Communicating Green Building Success to Your Customers; and The Next Step in CSR Reports.

Through the continued efforts of our membership, comprehensive research and great educational content, we at RILA look forward to helping retailers advance sustainability programs and forge the way ahead for our industry and others. For information on the conference or our research visit

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