RTS 2024: Standards sought for supply chain sustainability


It was an inspiring two days spent away from the laptop at the Retail Technology Show (RTS) in London on 24-25 April, hearing from a broad range of retailers about their current challenges, innovations, and opportunities.

As ever, I was laser focused on gaining a greater understanding of how the sustainably agenda in retail is shifting – and what retailers and brands are doing to support positive progress in this space. Cries for standardisation were common, while there is certainly no lack of ambition among the retailer community to make their supply chains more environmentally-friendly.

Digital product passports

Andrew Xeni, co-founder of Nobody’s Child, took to the stage to explain how the brand – which sells direct to consumers but also increasingly through partnerships with the likes of Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, and Asos – is a digital product passports (DPP) pioneer.

All apparel sold in the European Union will need to have a DPP within the next couple of years, allowing consumers to scan a code to gain access to that product’s provenance. In simple terms it’s fashion’s version of the nutritional labels you find on food packaging, but some analysts have called it the biggest revolution for fashion product manufacturing and merchandising since the launch of the barcode.

It should also have an influential role in making supply chains greener and more ethical, as retailers look to work with suppliers adhering to the rules and those which prove they produce and procure materials appropriately. Suppliers that don’t will surely be left out in the cold.

But for DPP to work effectively and for the process to be as efficient as possible for suppliers, the industry must come together quickly and get standards in place, Xeni said.

“In an industry that is challenged today by so much regulation, to drive sustainability, visibility, and traceability, the biggest movement has to be around standardisation,” he noted.

“How can we get more and more people to align on doing things one way, the correct way? Otherwise we’re going to end up doing the same three thousand ways in three years which is going to kill the suppliers and put pressure on them.”

Nobody’s Child’s work in this space, neatly aided by Xeni position as owner of a tech company Fabacus which can source, crunch, and organise the relevant data required for a DPPs, is showing the art of the possible. The co-founder said he has helped to get seven of the top ten apparel manufacturers globally to align on this movement.

“We are definitely getting momentum but everyone needs to align on what it means for their partners and suppliers. Then you can deliver success.”

Supply chain moves that just make sense

Simon Finch, supply chain director at Harrods, also talked up the need for greater collaboration and standardisation across supply chains if retailers are going to be successful in making major strides in sustainability.

As he said, scope 1 an 2 carbon emissions reductions at Harrods – which the business has tackled with gusto in recent years – comprise around just 4-5% of overall emissions. It means dealing with scope 3 emissions related to partners through the supply chain is where most work is required and where the biggest environmental impact gains reside.

But he argued retail is not joined up enough yet to make this a reality. The same brand will have different stipulations from Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and Selfridges – with the supply chain director saying the retail sector isn’t “helping them help us” right now.

In a positive step, though, Finch said its supplier, Burberry, now ships Harrods online orders directly from its own warehouse in New Jersey, US, when an order comes in from a customer based in North America. Before the tech and infrastructure evolved, the product would have been distributed from Harrods’ store in Knightsbridge, London.

“It’s about looking at those opportunities where we don’t have to make the decision between sustainable or [lower] cost because actually you can have both,” he explained.

“That’s where we need the innovation, creativity, and cooperation – if we can harness that it’s a win, win.”

Finch said he continues to hold conversations with luxury retail body Walpole and standards organisation GS1 UK, who he views as crucial players in fostering more industry-wide collaboration.

Greener food supply chains

Earlier in the day, Sophie Trueman, managing director UK & Ireland for online food waste prevention marketplace Too Good To Go, told food retailers in the audience they need to “get ahead of the game” when it comes to preparing for impending regulation. The business has recently led others in the industry in lobbying the UK government to introduce mandatory food waste reporting for businesses.

In another example of that standardisation theme coming to the fore again, Trueman said regulation can influence. It can provide a framework and the motivation for positive change in the corporate world.

Elsewhere, Grace Wilkinson, head of last mile & customer at Co-op, spoke about the technological advancements the retailer is deploying which bring convenience – and in some cases, more sustainability – to customer orders.

She said the ambition is for all Co-op’s first-party delivery options to be “green” by 2026, classing its autonomous robot delivery, which serves customers in several UK regions, and electric-powered vehicles and bikes among its ‘green’ fleet. Alongside this, Co-op is working with its third-party couriers to build greater transparency around the modes of transport they use for home delivery.

Hopefully, she said, there’ll be a time “sooner rather than later” where customers will be able to choose, “up front”, the exact mode of transport they would like to be used to fulfil their order. Such a scenario – and Wilkinson acknowledged Co-op isn’t at this stage yet – would enable shoppers to have more control, and therefore cherry pick greener options.

RTS showed so much forward thinking in retail. But, as ever, it’s a case of the industry coming together as much as it can to make some of these sustainable supply chain ambitions a reality.