Travel Retail vs Sustainability

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Sustainability was the talk of the town in Cannes this year during the TFWA World Exhibition. This is a topic which has been close to my heart for many years, but in my first return to Cannes since the pandemic, I heard the word mentioned more than every before. It was a focus for brands showcasing new products with a “sustainable” design, and for retailers talking about sustainable concepts in-store.

Encouragingly, there were some signs of genuine effort and innovation as well. It is clear that efforts to reduce packaging and waste, while also delivering products which really can be recycled and reduce their impact on the world, are underway – and that is encouraging.

But, if we step beyond the PR and promotion to look beneath the lid, so much of what is going on is superficial and bordering in some instances on complete greenwashing and spin. There is so much talk of delivering 50% recycled or reusable packaging by 2030, for example. This is an embarrassing effort and claim to be trumpeting around. Such a measure should be the bare minimum; if the industry wants to be taken seriously in its sustainability efforts, recycled and recyclable packaging is the right to play.

I understand, of course, that change takes time, but we have all had time. There is no excuse for just getting started now. Those who are not advanced in their projects and able to showcase true sustainability built into their business are admitting that either they did not bother for many years, or they do not care.

Furthermore, we must all stop pretending that packaging and offsetting some carbon emissions is all that is required. So many of us praise and hold up efforts that really should be doing much more.

Those who are not able to showcase true sustainability built into their business are admitting that either they did not bother for many years, or they do not care.

It was excellent to see Sarah Branquinho, the DFWC President, call on companies during one of the workshops to put “meat on the bones” of their sustainability promises by properly investing in transparency and commitments which cover everything from illicit trade to slavery and sustainability. Her point perfectly highlights that the scope of the sustainability discussion in travel retail is still not deep enough – and that is unforgiveable, we have been having this discussion for years.

In some cases, companies showcasing their “leadership” due to natural ingredients or 60% recycled packaging need to be called out for what they are: Greenwashing.

If you want a perfect example of the gulf between words and actions in our industry, look no further than the thousands and thousands of paper and plastic bags handed out at the show, most of which were later to be seen abandoned in piles around the Palais and the town. This is our industry’s biggest platform and that speaks volumes about how seriously we take this.

Travel retail must take an honest look at itself on the subject of sustainability and ESG. A recent article on TRUnblocked called proposed sustainability reporting mandates a “flimsy, rough-sketched out system”. They are right. So much of the work around this topic is posturing. But that has to stop. We all must recognise that no one is going to fix this problem for us, and no one can do it alone. Each one of us must look at our business and, no matter what you do already, ask “What more can I do?” Talk is cheap and the time for it is over.