World Earth Day: 7 easy changes to run a more sustainable boutique

‘Sustainability’ is no longer just a fashion buzzword. As brands are working hard to minimise water and textile waste, retailers will also need to satisfy their customers that they are operating as sustainably as possible. And it’s also becoming more important to help shoppers take responsibility themselves to re-use and recycle the clothes they buy.

Becoming more sustainable isn’t easy – and it won’t happen overnight. But as long as indies make efforts to reduce waste and lower their carbon footprint, it will all go towards creating a more environmentally-friendly industry. Here are our top tips for operating a more sustainable boutique…

  1. Use green suppliers

The sustainability movement has reached the mainstream. Most suppliers that work with boutiques are ramping up their environmental efforts, whether that’s using organic cotton and recycled PET fabrics or overhauling their entire production process. “For any business owner looking to be more sustainable, pivoting operations to reduce carbon emissions is imperative,” says Ian Hambleton, co-founder of Ecologi. “For indies, this can be achieved by choosing more sustainable suppliers that use recycled materials and greening supply chains by working with local and ethical manufacturers.” This is also true for other companies that may be supplying your business: “Retailers can also use renewable energy to power premises, adopt green web-hosting and sustainable search engines, and use ethical and eco-conscious banks,” Hambleton adds.   

  1. And greener couriers

Certain fulfilment partners also offer options to offset carbon emissions, which can be a great way to improve your sustainability status. Enda Breslin, EMEA at global logistics platform ShipBob (uk.shipbob.com), explains: “This is an area small retailers should consider, as it’s a fantastic way to drive your own sustainability targets by making use of a larger network with existing connections to offsetting companies. For example, we partner with data-driven offsetting firm Pachama and this has proven popular with the brands we work with, enabling them to match the total carbon impact of their delivery distances with a tree-planting initiative.”

  1. Minimise return rates

Returns are bad for the environment, with estimates suggesting they’re responsible for 20-25 per cent of a fashion retailer’s environmental impact. With 70 per cent of returns caused by size and fit, the best way to reduce rates is to help shoppers buy clothes that fit. “One easy step is to make sure you’re listing your model’s key measurements on every product page,” says Maddie Forman, co-founder of Vestico (vestico.co). “Detailed product descriptions and multiple product images can also help customers make smarter purchasing decisions. But to really give customers fit confidence, fit technologies that integrate with a retailer’s website can drastically reduce returns. Some, like Vestico, are accessible and affordable for independent businesses.” AI and AR virtual try-on tools mean shoppers can see how clothes look on their body virtually without even needing to place an order: “Shoppers can experiment with more products than ever before without leaving the carbon footprint that comes from physical product sampling,” says Alice Chang, CEO at Perfect Corp (perfectcorp.com). “These tools provide a fun, safe, convenient, alternative and help consumers make more confident purchase decisions.”

  1. Choose sustainable packaging

According to research by Drapers in partnership with Smurfit Kappa, sustainable packaging now matters to almost two thirds of fashion consumers. And from the 2,000 shoppers polled on the topic, 64 per cent said they were more likely to buy from a retailer using more eco-friendly parcels and packing solutions. “Seeing their favourite stores switch to sustainable alternatives is now an expectation for many shoppers,” says Sarah Swenson, global senior manager of sustainability at Avery Dennison (rbis.averydennison.com). “Today it’s possible to source plastic-free and biodegradable e-commerce packaging. Also, labels can be minimised with QR codes to give consumers additional information about the garment.” In-store, she also suggests retailers offer incentives like loyalty points to encourage shoppers to bring their own carrier bags.

  1. Go paperless

One way of reducing your store’s waste is to digitalise your back office and shop floor, minimising the amount of paper you’re sending to be recycled: “Going digital and moving all the documents, inventory data, bills and receipts to cloud-based storage, is efficient, cost-saving and environment friendly,” says Kola Tytler, CEO of online streetwear retailer Dropout (dropoutmilano.com). Some retailers, such as Mango, are going further still by introducing zero-waste checkouts. Shoppers can scan products on their phone and walk straight out of the shop without needing to visit the till. The high street retailer uses MishiPay, which also integrates with RFID security tags so they can be disabled remotely after payment has been made.

  1. Encourage recycling

Retailers can also engage conscious shoppers with sustainable incentives that will reduce their own environmental impact while still allowing them to buy new clothes. Tytler comments: “Indies may consider ways to engage their customers in providing a ‘second life’ to the items they buy, either looking into consignment for used items or by offering to recycle them for customers, extending lifecycles and keeping them for longer out of landfills.” Swenson agrees, adding: “Indies can introduce ‘take back’ of garments for resale or reverse logistics and recycling at the end of life. This will mean creating a partnership with a local reseller, recycler or reverse logistics provider, to ensure the garments sold don’t end up in landfill. One option is to provide a future coupon for customers who send back garments for resale, which creates an immediate ROI.”

  1. Support environmental projects

Creating more urban green spaces is an important part of the UK’s steps towards a more sustainable future. To stop the dwindling numbers of UK bees, there’s also an option to have a fully managed honeybee colony installed on your premises via an initiative by British firm Buckley’s Bees (buckleysbees.com). “Everything we do is with an advocation for environmental sustainability,” says founder Emma Buckley. “Joining our BEEcause initiative is a great way for businesses to demonstrate their ongoing commitment to CSR and sustainable behaviour.” Where retailers are unable to have bees onsite, there’s also an option to sponsor hives within the company’s own apiary.