Sustainability in retailing – research streams and emerging trends

Anne Wiese (Chair of Retailing, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany)
Stephan Zielke (Department of Business Administration and MAPP - Centre for Research on Customer Relations in the Food Sector, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark)
Waldemar Toporowski (Chair of Retailing, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany)

International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management

ISSN: 0959-0552

Article publication date: 11 May 2015



Wiese, A., Zielke, S. and Toporowski, W. (2015), "Sustainability in retailing – research streams and emerging trends", International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 43 No. 4/5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Sustainability in retailing – research streams and emerging trends

Article Type: Guest editorial From: International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Volume 43, Issue 4/5.

Role of retailers in sustainability

In recent years, the topic of sustainability has gained importance in many business areas. The Triple Bottom Line model has been developed for adapting sustainability to the business environment. It differentiates among three pillars: the social, environmental and economic dimensions (Elkington, 1998). Following the World Commission on Environment and Development’s (1987) understanding of sustainable development, a similar definition has been suggested for the business context: “sustainable development means adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future” (International Institute for Sustainable Development, 1992, p. 11).

A recent literature review has revealed that the topic of sustainability remains fairly unexplored in the retail research (Wiese et al., 2012a). Retailers act as gatekeepers between producers and consumers (Ytterhus et al., 1999). Adopting this position, retailers can help incorporate sustainability along their supply chains, for instance by enhancing changes in production processes and consumption patterns with regard to social and environmental issues (Durieu, 2003; Erol et al., 2009). As retailers are held responsible for activities in their supply chains by both consumers as well as NGOs (Barry, 2003; de Man and Burns, 2006; Wiese and Toporowski, 2013), scandals can lead to a loss of reputation. However, corporate responsibility can also be used to gain a competitive advantage (Connelly et al., 2011; Lai et al., 2010), for instance by reaching a unique sustainable selling position (Belz, 2006).

Retailers have various means of influencing social and environmental sustainability. For example, they can improve the sustainability of their products and processes, such as their transports, packaging and assortment. Furthermore, retailers can influence the behaviour of their supply chain partners and their customers (United Nations Environment Programme, 2003; Durieu, 2003). Hence, retailers should behave responsibly to maintain their licence to operate while at the same time supporting their customers and business partners in behaving more responsibly.

Relevant research streams

Sustainability research in retailing can be structured based on the type of sustainability activities undertaken. Retailers can address sustainability issues by offering more sustainable products, implementing more sustainable business processes and motivating customers to behave more sustainably. These activities can be further structured based on the sustainability issues addressed, in particular whether they address environmental or social issues.

Sustainable products and brands

Retailers are held responsible for the products they offer and for the sustainable behaviour of their suppliers. Regarding products, much research has been conducted on organic products and labels, which are usually considered to be sustainable (e.g. Aertsens et al., 2009; Annunziata et al., 2011; Bezawada and Pauwels, 2013; Larceneux et al., 2012; Ngobo, 2011). However, less research has been conducted regarding other types of sustainable products and labels, such as products respecting animal rights or environmentally friendly packaging (e.g. Lindgreen and Hingley, 2003; Mørkbak and Nordström, 2009). Products can also address social sustainability issues, such as fair-trade products or products from suppliers caring for working conditions and child labour issues (e.g. Andorfer and Liebe, 2011; Chen and Huddleston, 2009; Nicholls, 2002). Research in retailing should not only analyse the acceptance and willingness to pay for these products but also how these products influence the retailer’s image, create loyalty, increase shopping basket value and attract new customer segments. Research should also address how these effects differ for sustainable manufacturer brands and different types of sustainable private labels. Also analysing country differences in the acceptance of sustainable products is a relevant research topic (Thøgersen, 2010).

In this Special Issue, several papers address product-related sustainability issues.

Tofighi and Bodur analyse in their paper “Social responsibility and its differential effects on the retailers’ portfolio of private label brands” how sustainability claims influence the evaluation of high-tier and low-tier private label products. They test opposing hypotheses based on resource synergy beliefs (sustainable low-tier products must compromise product quality) and costly signalling theory (sustainable low-tier products signal altruistic behaviour). The findings support effects of resource synergy beliefs: sustainability claims have positive effects for high-tier private label products and negative effects for low-tier private label products.

Bezençon and Etemad-Sajadi focus in their paper “The effect of a sustainable label portfolio on consumer perception of ethicality and retail patronage” on the impact of the scope of different types of sustainability labels: collective sustainability labels can be used by different organisations, while retailer-owned labels are only used by one retailer. The results demonstrate that both types of labels influence the perceived ethicality of the retailer, although collective labels have a stronger effect. The perceived ethicality mediates effects of sustainable labels on retail patronage.

Monnot, Parguel and Reniou focus in their paper titled “Consumer responses to elimination of overpackaging on private label products” on packaging issues. They reveal that reducing overpackaging has positive effects on perceived environmental friendliness but negative effects on product quality and convenience perception for standard (mimic) private label products. Furthermore, product quality and convenience perception mediate the impact of overpackaging on purchase intention. These effects do not exist for generic private labels.

Magnier and Crié address in their paper “Communicating packaging eco-friendliness: an exploration of consumers’ perceptions of eco-designed packaging” the issue of sustainable product design management. In a qualitative study, the authors identify and classify ecological cues related to packaging. The aim is to define the concept of eco-designed packaging and understand the influence of ecological cues on consumers’ responses. The consumer-led taxonomy of packaging ecological cues enables marketers and designers to indicate the ecological nature of their packaging. Furthermore, the study highlights how consumers value eco-designed packages. It helps create an understanding of why consumers adopt or reject eco-designed packages, which in turn can improve their communicative effectiveness.

Sustainable business processes

Retailers can also behave more sustainably in their business processes. This refers, for example, to the selection of suppliers, supply chain management and sales processes. An emerging trend is the so-called sustainable store. IKEA, for example, follows the strategy that each new store should be more sustainable than the last one built. This refers not only to building materials, waste management and energy efficiency, but also to social issues (IKEA, 2013). Research must analyse how these sustainability initiatives should be communicated and how they influence the retailer’s image (e.g. Lacey and Kennett-Hensel, 2010). Furthermore, research should also analyse whether and under which conditions such initiatives pay off. Moreover, social aspects of business processes deserve a stronger research focus. Research has shown that when customers attribute low prices at retailers to an exploitation of suppliers and employees, this results in negative store perceptions, emotions and shopping intentions (Zielke, 2014). Less research, however, has analysed the positive effects of communicating fair relations with suppliers and employees to customers. Therefore, regarding social initiatives, future research should analyse when and under which conditions they pay off.

In this Special Issue, several papers address sustainability issues related to business processes.

In his paper “Images of responsible consumers: organizing the marketing of sustainability”, Fuentes uses practice theory and an ethnographic study of three Swedish clothing retailers to analyse various approaches to marketing sustainability. He argues that the retailers are driven by the image of a responsible consumer each retailer has in mind rather than by consumer demand or supply chain pressure.

Lehner also follows a case study approach in the paper “Translating sustainability: the role of the retail store”. Based on interviews with retail representatives and store observations, he analyses how various food retailers adapt the sustainability concept to their specific requirements and customers. A particular focus is laid on the interaction between headquarters and stores, divided into a macro and micro sense-making process that should lead to a market offer aligning stakeholder expectations and market pressure.

Another important research area is the effect that sustainability has on companies’ success. This research stream is reflected by Schramm-Klein, Morschett and Swoboda in their paper “Retailer corporate social responsibility: shedding light on CSR’s impact on profit of intermediaries in marketing channels”. The paper highlights the specific responsibility that retailers hold as intermediaries in the marketing channel. The authors present a conceptual model and hypotheses on the impact of CSR on retailer performance. The empirical study reveals drivers of companies’ CSR activities and communication. The results of the PLS structural equation model indicate a positive link of CSR activities and communication to performance in terms of both financial and non-monetary aspects.

The paper “The triple bottom line: undertaking an economic, social, and environmental retail sustainability strategy” by John Wilson applies a case study of Marks & Spencer’s “Plan A” sustainability strategy and their first eco-learning store to understand relevant factors of retailers’ sustainability strategies. The authors develop a list with fifteen points, providing a checklist for retailers that aim to enhance their sustainability strategies.

Enhancing sustainability in consumer behaviour

Retailers can help their customers behave more sustainably by adapting the abstract sustainability concept to their specific requirements, taking into consideration their market situation and the needs of their customers. Recent research has, for example, found that internet shopping causes by far less CO2 emissions compared to brick-and-mortar shopping (Wiese et al., 2012b). As most of these emissions result from travelling to and from the stores, retailers can motivate customers to change their travel behaviour by choosing more sustainable transport modes, combining shopping trips, etc. In addition, investments in the online channel could be considered more sustainable from this perspective. Other types of consumer behaviour that retailers can motivate include more sustainable and healthy product choices, household waste reduction, recycling, etc. Research should analyse these types of behaviour and how retailers can motivate customers to behave more sustainably. It is also important to analyse whether such motivation results in positive effects on retailer perception. Furthermore, possible negative effects deserve attention, e.g. whether customers purchase less when using public transport instead of their own cars or whether such initiatives scare off some customer segments.

In this Special Issue, two papers address consumer-related sustainability issues.

Yohan Bernard, Laurent Bertrandias and Leila Elgaaied-Gambier analyse “Shoppers’ grocery choices in the presence of generalized eco-labelling”. Applying two quasi-experimental studies for dish soap, yoghurt and paper towels that manipulate environmental information with a traffic light-shaped eco-label, they measure how the label influences factors such as purchasing intentions and the perception of the product’s environmental harmfulness. The authors demonstrate the importance of consumer familiarity with this topic and discuss implications for policy makers when planning a mandatory eco-label and for retailers when faced with such a challenge.

Wiese, Zielke and Toporowski discuss in their paper “Shopping travel behaviour: influencing factors, shopper types and environmental consequences” the drivers of consumer shopping travel behaviour, with a particular focus on the transport mode used for the shopping trip and its environmental consequences. By interviewing consumers with different demographic backgrounds, they highlight two main aspects hindering environmentally friendly behaviour: the perceived necessity of mobility during the various life cycles (by which parents are particularly affected); and the negative evaluation of public transport in terms of flexibility and comfort. Based on the results, the authors demonstrate how retailers, transport providers and policy makers can support consumers in behaving more environmentally friendly.

Conclusion and outlook

Sustainability has gained significantly in importance during recent years. In particular, retailers are confronted with requests for sustainable behaviour, considering their special role as gatekeeper. This Special Issue analyses the role of retailers from various perspectives to gain a deeper understanding of relevant topics and provide insights into future research areas. We have highlighted a number of emerging research trends and directions for future sustainability research regarding issues related to products, processes and consumer motivation. Figure 1 summarises the three research streams and important topics related to them. It also illustrates the link between sustainability and psychological and economic outcomes. Several parts of the framework are addressed by the papers in this issue, while others should be addressed by future research. We hope therefore that this framework will structure and stimulate future sustainability research in retailing.

Figure 1 Framework for sustainability research in retailing


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About the Guest Editors

Dr Anne Wiese was a Research Assistant and a PhD Candidate at the Chair of Retailing, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany. She finished her thesis in 2013. Her research focuses on sustainability issues in retailing and supply chain management as well as on CSR, and organic and Fair Trade products. Since 2014 she is working as a Corporate Responsibility Manager for a logistics service provider. Dr Anne Wiese is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:

Stephan Zielke is an Associate Professor at MAPP – Centre for Research on Customer Relations in the Food Sector, Aarhus University, Denmark. He received his PhD from the University of Cologne and worked afterwards at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (both Germany) and Rouen Business School, France. His research focuses on retail marketing, especially retail pricing, instore marketing, store brands and sustainability issues.

Professor Waldemar Toporowski holds the Chair of Retailing at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany. He received his PhD in 1995 from the University of Cologne, before he joined the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen in 2003. His research focuses on retailing and distribution, especially marketing channels, retail logistics, retail technologies and store brands.

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