Sustainability on the store shelf

Compostable packaging and “mushroom” leather are just a few examples of what’s out there
VP, CSR & Sustainability
January 9, 2023

What kinds of sustainable products can consumers find on local retail store shelves or on virtual shelves online? More than most consumers would imagine.

Retailers are in the business of responding to consumer demand. As more consumers seek sustainability-focused products, retailers are increasing the variety of products available. Be on the lookout for products like those below from your favorite retailers.

Zero-waste products

While few products produce absolutely zero waste, some soaps and shampoos are sold in packaging that can be composted at home. They’re also sold as concentrates to refill reusable containers made of recycled plastic or aluminum. Consumers looking to reduce their waste can find a variety of products in reusable or refillable containers or products made with recyclable or compostable materials.

Target is making it easier for consumers to find products with specific environmental claims in-store and online with its Target Zero program. Walmart’s Built for Better and Amazon’s Climate Pledge Friendly programs also identify more sustainable products.

Products made from sustainable materials

The fashion world is seeing an increasing variety and availability of more sustainable materials including organic cotton, “leather” made from mushrooms and other plant-based materials, and fabric made from recycled fabrics or recycled plastics. Information about these sustainable materials can be found on garment tags or via QR codes on retail websites.

EPA-labeled products

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has several programs to identify more sustainable products. The Energy Star program identifies energy-efficient products including appliances, electronics, air conditioners and windows. EPA’s WaterSense program highlights water-efficient toilets, showerheads, irrigation equipment and more. The Safer Choice program recognizes safer and more sustainable cleaning products and other chemically intensive products.

Each EPA program has its own label to make it easier for consumers to identify products meeting EPA standards in-store or online.

“Gently used” products

Retailers are making it easier for consumers to buy high-quality used products, saving consumers money while creating sustainability benefits. The resale retail trend continues to grow, with an increasing number of consumers interested in purchasing “gently used” or refurbished products for reasons including to save money and to be more sustainable.

More than 100 retailers ranging from REI and Patagonia to Levi’s and Coach are selling previously owned merchandise.

Innovative product ownership options

Best Buy recently introduced a program that allows consumers to effectively lease Apple MacBook computers. Consumers are technically purchasing them with monthly payment options, but can upgrade to newer products before the final payment — much like leasing a phone as part of a cell phone plan or leasing a car with the option to purchase it at the end of the lease.

From a sustainability perspective, this approach creates incentives for consumers to return the products in good shape so the retailer or manufacturer can refurbish and resell or properly recycle the product.

Balancing considerations

Retailers are making more sustainable products available to consumers, but consumers have not yet widely embraced them.

Part of the challenge is that consumers have their own evolving definitions for sustainability, which makes promoting sustainable products challenging. Products that meet the sustainability requirements of one consumer might not meet the requirements of another.

Sustainability considerations are also only part of the purchasing decision for any consumer. Consumers are also balancing price, quality, performance and social acceptance.

Any consumer seeking sustainable products can rest assured that retailers are ready to make it easy for them.

Related content

Creating a circular retail economy
A workshop at NRF 2024: Retail’s Big Show will help retailers understand how to evolve their businesses.
Read more
REI re-embraces its mission to help people of all kinds spend more time in the great outdoors
REI store
CMO Chris Speyer oversees the co-op’s attempt to appeal to a more diverse population.
Read more
How reverse logistics makes the retail cycle go around
Woman returning clothes at a store.
Retail Gets Real episode 324: Tony Sciarrotta of the Reverse Logistics Association explains the cycle of returned items.
Read more