We’ve all been guilty of making the occasional easy pick. Asking for a plastic bag at the checkout, throwing the recyclable cardboard into the rubbish bin, or buying from a retail brand with poor ethical standards.

But in a world rife with uncertainty, consumers are increasingly making more deliberate decisions about where they go, what they do, and what they purchase. Since the pandemic, 62 per cent of Australians have re-evaluated their priorities, electing to engage with companies that are committing to positive change.

The second-hand market, for example, is taking on the dark underbelly of fast fashion and is set to hit US$64 billion in the next five years, outpacing its environmentally unconscious rival by 2029.

But looking at the whole industry, retail continues to struggle to lower its impact on the environment. As it stands, less than 5 percent of large retailers globally have made commitments to address climate change.

With global warming occurring faster than projected and extreme weather events – such as the recent Queensland and New South Wales floods – increasing in frequency and severity, government and industry have to act.

In an effort to address climate change, the Australian Retail Association (ARA) recently released a roadmap to help retailers get the industry to net zero, with targets for suppliers, shoppers and landfill.

Ranking ‘A’ in the most recent Baptist World Aid annual Ethical Fashion report, Country Road is a leader in the fight against environmental degradation.

The major retailer is opting to move towards more circular systems of production, extending the ‘use’ phase of its fashion items for as long as possible and creating better end of life solutions. It has also honed in on its packaging, replacing plastic void-fill with FSC certified paper alternatives.

But according to the ARA’s net zero roadmap, technology and data are poised to play a key part in driving the change, supplementing other important milestones such as electricity consumption targets and coolant gas for refrigeration ambitions.

Gartner indicates Australia’s technology spend is accelerating ahead of revenue growth, with its latest findings showing businesses are willing to stump up cash for technology that bolsters business outcomes.

In the last year or so, we’ve seen retailers heavily invest in their technology posture to help them break down data silos and achieve the ultimate omni-channel business model. This is where in-store and online experiences are equally seamless and customers can get the products they want, how, and when they want them, whether visiting a store or shopping online.

An Australian shoe wholesaler, for example, is solving the historical disconnect between the footwear industry and eCommerce by creating a connected digital backbone.

Footwear has been one of the last segments of retail to come fully online, due to consumers’ desires to try on shoes before purchasing. Connecting the many systems that make up the wholesaler’s brick-and-mortar and eCommerce operations, including sharing data between point of sale (POS) and supply chain systems, has allowed the organisation to tap into its eCommerce potential and deliver a better customer experience, in-store and online.

With visibility and control over its data, the Australian shoe company has made retail hybridisation a lasting silver lining of the pandemic.

But cracking open operational silos can do so much more for the industry – it can remove waste and inefficiencies across the supply chain.

With so many hands involved between picking the cotton and sending a product to store, Gartner analysts suggest brands are still struggling with understanding the visibility of their supply chains.

But Freedom Furniture – iconic Australian homeware and furniture retailer – is an outlier. With a centralised view into all data from brick-and-mortar and ecommerce operations, Freedom has been able to gain a better understanding of its customer and thereby identify, secure and onboard local suppliers – from mattresses, right through to furniture and homewares.

The benefits extend to overcoming fulfilment and delivery challenges, where Freedom previously had data blind spots.

We know local suppliers and more efficient logistics chains are better for the environment. While fully optimising transport equipment to make fewer trips, travel less kilometres and use less fuel is the right-hand side of the green equation, the left starts with greater visibility over operations and supply chains, and this is made possible through connected and accurate data.

With systems that communicate and share data securely, retailers are equipped with a single window of visibility and availability across their entire supply chain network. With this understanding, brands can more accurately and quickly introduce policies and take measures that reduce environmental impact – whether it is sourcing more locally, optimising fulfillment logic and delivery routing, or better collaborating with partners to streamline supply chains and make them greener. 

Recent industry research, commissioned by Manhattan Associates, found over 70 per cent of Australian consumers are open to switching to or paying a higher price for products and services that are more environmentally friendly. 

To make headway on greener retail, the same report states “sellers and shippers need more intelligence, more flexibility and more insight.”

As businesses design sustainability practices into the fabric of their operations, a data-led supply chain will help retailers get it right, and be greener, from the start. If we’re to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, we need industry-wide cooperation now.   

Nathan Gower is head of Australia & New Zealand at Boomi.