Whither Post-Retail Sustainability?
Once more the financial news is filled with stories of major retailers struggling in the internet era. Maplin, Toys R Us and Poundworld have gone, Marks & Spencer, Carphone Warehouse and New Look are closing stores, and House of Fraser and Debenhams are deep in the mire. My view is that their demise is to a large extent their own fault, squeezing out smaller competitors and creating boring clone towns of soulless big sheds stacked high with generic stuff. If you take the serendipity out of shopping on the high street, who wouldn’t prefer to surf the web from the comfort of their sofa?*
From a Sustainability point of view there are upsides and downsides to this transformation:
Upside: it has been shown that internet, warehouse plus delivery van model is much lower carbon than the logistics of putting everything in a big brightly lit, heated store and getting people to travel to do their shopping. Digital sales, e.g. downloading a music album, involve much less carbon (60% less for an album) and no material/packaging compared to their physical equivalent.
Downside: many of our big retail brands: Marks & Spencer, B&Q and Walmart to name but three, are driving Sustainability down through their supply chain. Many commerce platforms, Amazon being the most obvious, are simply a front end interface and show little or no ownership of the produce on sale. For example, you can buy a wide range of patio heaters on Amazon.co.uk, whereas B&Q chose not to stock any for Sustainability reasons. (Plus, of course, the community benefits of getting out of the house and interacting with real people have gone.)
I assume that soon, environmental NGOs will start holding the Amazons and eBays of this world to account for the produce they stock, but I’m not sure the impact will be as great as on a brand that we actually feel some loyalty to, such as Marks & Spencer (you can’t wave a placard in front of a website…). It’s something I for one am quite concerned about. What do you think?
*As an aside: my view is that to save the our town centres, we need to ditch the decades-old planning mentality of major stores being the ‘anchor tenants’ attracting the consumer – that ship has sailed. If we slashed business rates for smaller, independent stores, variety would reappear on the high street and the smaller stores would attract the footfall for larger stores rather than the other way around.