How sustainability connects with every retail career

Each retail role is a sustainability role
VP, CSR & Sustainability; Executive Director, Center for Retail Sustainability

Early-career professionals and high school students thinking about their first jobs are seeking opportunities to bring their sustainability priorities into the workplace. The retail industry is welcoming them with open arms because every retail role is a sustainability role. Retail employees make it possible for retailers to meet consumer demand for more sustainable products and services and to meet retailers’ own sustainability goals.

Growing interest in sustainability careers

One-third of teenagers want to learn more about careers related to sustainability and climate change. Business students now expect companies to prioritize sustainability throughout every aspect of their business and, as a result, more business schools are integrating sustainability into required courses. A Yale University survey showed 78% of college students report wanting to work for a company with good environmental practices, with half of students reporting they would accept a lower salary to work for an environmentally responsible company.

NRF Sustainability Council

Learn more about sustainability issues and NRF’s Sustainability Council.

According to Deloitte, 55% of potential employees research a company’s environmental impacts and policies before accepting a job. Three-quarters of U.S. executives report that ESG goals have a positive impact on employee engagement in a Society for Human Resources Management survey. SHRM reports 86% of employees working in companies with ESG goals are proud to work there and find the jobs more meaningful.

Retail sustainability roles

While some retail roles focus more heavily on sustainability, every role in retail is a sustainability role, whether someone is the CEO or a part-time sales floor employee. Following is a partial list of some sustainability roles in retail.

Chief executive officer: Among many other responsibilities, the CEO sets overall corporate strategy, including which aspects of sustainability to prioritize. Javier Quiñones, IKEA U.S. CEO and chief sustainability officer, spoke about his role setting sustainability priorities at NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show in New York City.

Chief sustainability officer: While not every retailer has a designated CSO, sustainability leadership roles exist within most large to mid-size retailers. Sustainability roles vary significantly depending on the retailer and where the sustainability role is located within the retailer’s organization chart. One common aspect of the roles, according to NRF Sustainability Council members, is understanding the responsibilities of every other role in the company and knowing how to best influence and support their sustainability priorities.

Delivery driver: While others likely decide whether they are driving electric vehicles and which routes they travel, delivery drivers play an important sustainability role. Studies have found a 35% difference in fuel use between the most and least efficient drivers, meaning driving styles can have a big sustainability impact.

Finance and accounting: Retailers can only invest in sustainability initiatives when they have the money to do so. It is the role of retail financing and accounting professionals to evaluate the return on investment for various sustainability initiatives, help balance sustainability needs with other needs of the business and have the right metrics in place to track progress. Financial executives also find creative ways to deliver sustainability results, including innovative supply chain finance solutions.

Marketing and advertising: Retail is a highly competitive and low-margin business. As a result, retailers invest heavily in understanding what consumers want and ensuring consumers know retailers are selling products that meet their needs. As consumer interest in more sustainable products continues to grow, retailers are learning to talk about sustainability with anyone while avoiding greenwashing.

Merchants: Retail merchants decide which products will be offered for sale. They influence fashion, color and style trends. They identify the latest innovations in appliances and electronics or the toys or games that will be most interesting for consumers. Sustainability-focused merchants seek out more sustainable offerings made from more sustainable materials or in more sustainable ways. They also must ensure the products they offer for sale are available at price points consumers are willing to pay.

Procurement: Those in procurement roles negotiate purchases of computers, cash registers, janitorial services, paper, shopping carts, signs, shelving, trucks, refrigerated cases, coat hangers and anything else it takes to run a retail operation. Procurement professionals in the retail sector are increasingly seeking more sustainable versions of the products they buy including more energy-efficient equipment and products made with recycled content or more sustainable materials. They are also asking suppliers about their own sustainability efforts.

Sustainability in retail

Check out NRF’s latest articles covering sustainability in retail.

Sales floor clerk: Consumers trust information from an informed salesclerk. They value information about product quality, value and style. Increasingly, consumers are asking about more sustainable products. An informed salesclerk can help consumers select more energy- or water-efficient products, choose more durable and timeless fashions that will remain valuable in resale markets, or navigate the transition to refillable packaging.

Supply chain: The industry’s vast, global, overlapping and interconnected supply chain networks are what enable products from around the world to reach retailers for sale to the consumer. There are opportunities to improve supply chain sustainability at every part of these networks. Retail supply chain professionals are trying to trace complex supply chain networks and enabling circular supply chains.

When early-career professionals or students ask how to get a sustainability-focused job, seasoned sustainability professionals frequently respond, “Get a job and make it a sustainability-focused job.” In the retail industry that advice can be easy to follow because every retail role can be a sustainability role.

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