Conscious consumerism and innovation are on the rise in the retail space and customers are demanding that increased attention be paid to sustainability, ethical sourcing, community involvement and conserving scarce environmental resources when making their purchasing decisions. In this regard, the retail industry can benefit from aligning their in-store offerings – and by extension, their buying and supply chain development – with their customers’ needs. Retailers need to be increasingly sensitive to changing customer demands and support customers’ ethical approach to the well-being of people and the planet. More and more consumers are asking questions about the products they buy. They want to know the impact story behind the product they buy: is it environmentally friendly, is it locally sourced, and does it contribute towards a better future for those who were involved in growing or making it?

With this in mind, the retail industry should therefore focus on increasing its commitment to responsible sourcing. But it requires going one step further: retailers are in the position to help customers make informed decisions. The very nature of shopping is one of curated convenience – and the harder retailers work to match a convenient shopping experience with the knowledge and information needed for customers to make their ethical choices, the better supported they will be in the future.

Shopping and sustainability are linked in another way that makes a difference, and that is in the supply chain. Big South African retailers are in a unique position to facilitate the growth and development of their suppliers, but also to influence and support suppliers on a journey to becoming more sustainable and in tune with the end-consumer’s wants and needs.

Many of the largest potential environmental and social impacts occur in the extended retail supply chain, rather than within the operational ambit of retailers, and any negative impacts that occur pose a significant reputational risk to the retailer involved. This has a knock-on effect on the future sustainability of their businesses. If retailers focus on this, then both the customer and the supplier are informed and involved in the process and the links between production and consumption become seamless.


2015 was marked by numerous challenges in our energy and water sectors, and this has put even more pressure on industry to make a concerted effort towards achieving sustainability. The 2015 global climate change negotiations highlighted the retail industry in South Africa’s ongoing responsibility to manage energy, water and other scarce resources in an efficient way.

The current severe drought we are experiencing is also indicative of the need to conserve and to ensure we use our resources responsibly, and to work with other stakeholders in finding short- and long-term solutions to water scarcity and addressing quality concerns.

Retailers, as real estate owners and tenants, need to look at resource consumption patterns – both in store and along the supply chain – to see where savings can be made. Cutting back on the use of scarce resources, and measuring and monitoring resources properly, has to become a critical part of doing business. And sharing this experience with suppliers to assist their progress, as well as engaging with customers on energy and water saving, is an important opportunity for retailers.

For Woolworths, our work within direct supply chains relies on participation from suppliers. Through programmes such as ‘Farming for the Future’, we work directly with our primary producers in managing, monitoring and transforming environmental performance with regard to sustainable pesticide and fertiliser application, efficient irrigation and soil conservation techniques, among others.


Creating simple ways for customers to support causes that they care about also forms an integral part of customer loyalty programmes.


Woolworths’ tagline “The Difference” came to life in April 2015 with an announcement that transformed the traditional boundaries of retailer-customer engagement around sustainability. A first for a retailer in South Africa, Woolworths collaborated with the Grammy Award-winning musician, record producer and philanthropist Pharrell Williams. Pharrell is a global icon for social cohesion, advancement through education and environmental awareness. The strategic collaboration was identified through the alignment of these values.

The call to action from this collaboration to make a difference is captured in the Pharrell and Woolworths #Areyouwithus? In line with this vision, the campaign’s intention is to make sustainability 'cool' to the next generation of South Africans, in order to create a better future for the country and the planet.

The 18-month collaboration is a fully integrated 360° takeover of messaging across all media channels to engage customers around various issues of sustainability and education. The focus of the messaging changes periodically to consider important issues such as sustainable fishing and farming, ethical sourcing, sustainable fibres, ocean health etc.

Alongside this communication is a continual drive to raise funds for education through the MySchool programme, and Pharrell’s challenge to customers to help Woolworths raise R100 million to donate to schools by swiping their free MySchoolMyVillageMyPlanet cards.

The new and innovative approach to communicating sustainability is to encourage the participation of a generation previously not easily accessible through traditional communication platforms, with the aim of supporting the goals of the Good Business Journey and inspiring action by the next generation of South Africans.

Staff education campaigns are another way of ensuring their actions harness the sustainability impact – and teaching employees how to save resources also has an impact on their bottom lines, while simultaneously supporting sustainability goals. According to Statistics SA, the retail industry employs roughly 23% of South Africa’s labour force, which means the sector could make a profound difference.

Many employees are also developing an increasing affinity to companies that have strong environmental and social development programmes, giving a number of retailers an edge in attracting and retaining talent. Water, refrigeration, heating, fuel, power and lighting, packaging, food waste – all of these factors, and more – need to be considered in a retailer’s journey to pursuing more sustainable business practices. Being a sustainable retailer means not only minimising any negative impact but also positively contributing to the livelihoods of people within its operations, as well as customers, the supply chain and the environment.

Most importantly, the move towards sustainability in the retail space requires good leadership – and it is this that will define the industry in years to come.



Justin Smith
Group Head of Sustainability, Woolworths Holdings


Download the Tomorrow 2016 Handbook


+27 21 509 5022


To our monthly newsletter
Sign up