Published 1 year ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: British Cycling
As world leaders prepare to gather for COP27, sharp focus is once again on how governments can tackle the ongoing climate crisis. But there is a danger that retailers and brands will take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach about any resulting policy change, rather than tackling the challenges head on.
While the COP conference has grown in significance and visibility on a
yearly basis since the Paris
of 2015, the reality is that — without concerted legislative action to follow
through on the promises — it remains a talking shop for country-level
commitments that are often too heavily focused on energy consumption.
It is policy, not promises, that can really be a driver of change from such
meetings; but this is rarely instantaneous — something which can cause brands
and retailers to adopt an approach where they wait on a change to become
mandated before taking action.
We saw examples of this during COVID, where several key pieces of sustainability
legislation were delayed as the government fought the fire of a raging pandemic.
Policies such as the UK’s Plastic Packaging
had their consultations significantly delayed, and — rather than seeing this as
an opportunity to get a head start for when the legislation inevitably came into
force — brands and retailers used this as a reason to pump the brakes on their
Every five weeks brings us one percent closer to the 2030 target deadline of
reducing global emissions by 45 percent, set out in the Paris Agreement as a key
waypoint on the journey to net zero. If retailers and brands keep stalling every
time they get chance to, there is a danger of such distractions causing rolling
delays that add up to inertia at a vital time for net-zero targets.
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While COP27 is a waypoint on this journey, retailers and
brands are better served by engaging their entire supply
in the process of starting to make the small gains needed to make an immediate
No silver bullet
Although the concept of marginal gains
has been around for some time, it gained prominence through Sir Dave
Brailsford’s work with British
Cycling. When he was appointed coach in 2003, British Cycling’s record had been
sub-par for many years; and he quickly realised that there was no silver-bullet
solution to the team’s under-performance. Instead, success was to be found
through marginal gains.
The premise is reasonably simple — break down all the processes around a certain
subject; and identify where small, incremental gains can be made. While these
improvements start small, they begin to compound and accelerate until
significant advances become evident.
In the case of cycling, Brailsford examined everything from the aerodynamic
capabilities of the riders’ helmets, down to the accumulation of dust in the
support truck — suggesting small changes would eventually add up to a sum
greater than their parts.
Sure enough, the improvements began slowly with two Olympic golds in 2004 —
already the team’s best performance since 1908 — before taking on a snowball
effect that saw Team GB lead in 2008 and 2012, with a total of 16 golds. Not
only that, the shared learnings across the whole of the team meant that they
also won multiple world championships in road, BMX and mountain bike racing
over the next decade.
While the environment of elite sport is very different to how brands and
retailers should be approaching sustainability, the reality is that we face an
Olympic-sized challenge when it comes to achieving, at the very least, net-zero
emissions. In dealing with just one or two elements of the issue — be that
direct emissions, plastic
or any of the multitude of other elements that go into our carbon footprint —
the task remains an ever-present one. Instead, these incremental gains need to
be analysed from a much wider coverage base to deliver a gut-punch in the quest
for a net-zero future.
As with the challenge Brailsford faced back in 2003, there is no silver bullet
that is going to magically make all supply chain processes sustainable; so, the
key is identifying where to work with suppliers in achieving the small gains
that can add up to significant results.
The principle of marginal gains is only truly successful when it is applied to a
broad range of processes, rather than just a select few. Historically, brands
and retailers have tended to apply a Pareto Principle to
sustainability in their supply chain, focusing most of their efforts on working
with the top 20 percent of their suppliers.
Not only is this an ineffective way of encouraging sustainable practices
throughout the supply chain, it also means that those smaller suppliers that
typically need the most help are being left behind.
The reality is that if it is taking your top suppliers up to 30 years to reach
net zero, how long will it take the rest? If brands and retailers are to be seen
as taking net zero and carbon reduction seriously, they must work with the
entire supply chain — or risk leaving behind a significant section of suppliers
that may well have great ideas for how to address sustainability challenges, but
not the method of making them heard.
By engaging the whole supply chain, the marginal gains are much more widespread,
meaning the positive changes compound more quickly and very soon start to become
evident. If you think of a major retailer, chances are that they have hundreds —
if not thousands — of suppliers; so, if incremental improvements are made across
each of them, the results will improve exponentially over time.
Bringing everyone along on the journey also has the benefit of shared learnings.
Just as the BMX and road cycling teams learned from the tweaks that were being
made in Brailsford’s track squads, smaller suppliers can incorporate some of the
processes that are used by larger suppliers, which they wouldn’t typically be
Meanwhile, those larger fish can learn from some of the innovations that are
typically introduced by smaller suppliers. Whether it’s because they are more
ambitious, hungrier or less constrained by corporate structure, many of the best
innovations can come from those smaller suppliers — so, it is very much a
By doing this, brands and retailers can get there and hit the ambitious targets
that we face over the next 20 years; but they need to work with all their
suppliers in a scalable way to identify what they can achieve, and how they can
work together towards a common goal. If this can be achieved, those companies
will find themselves in the best possible position when the promises and
processes of COP27 become policy and set them on the right path towards becoming
While the British cycling analogy can be applied to sustainability, there is one
key difference: During the Brailsford era, Team GB also picked up eight Olympic
silver medals along with its plethora of golds. There will be no silver medal
for addressing climate change — together, we have to win.
Published Oct 28, 2022 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST