Tommy Brown (center), buyer for St. Louis Zoo and a board member of the ZAG Group, shares sustainability tips at a morning seminar in Las Vegas.
In the ever-connected digital age, consumers can research the socially responsible stances (or lack thereof) of businesses and products with just a couple of taps and swipes on a smartphone, helping them to make the most informed purchasing decisions. This in turn, can directly affect a retailer’s bottom line, so for many small business owners, it’s important to communicate important values and beliefs to customers in a substantial way.
“Your biggest asset is people. If they are not being invested, your work is not sustainable.” — Chris Solt, Fair Trade Federation
In a recent Las Vegas Market seminar held on Jan. 25, three trade association leaders participated in a transparent discussion of ethical and sustainable practices for the nonprofit retail sector. Chris Solt, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation moderated the panel, which included participants Tommy Brown, buyer at St. Louis Zoo and board member of Zoo, Aquarium and Garden Buyers Group (ZAG Group) and Meg Hauser, secretary of the Museum Store Association, (MSA).
Solt kicked off the discussion by introducing four areas in which retailers can look for opportunities grow their ethical and sustainable business practices: Human capital, inventory, sales and “JEDI,” that is, store practices promoting justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.
Beginning with an analysis of human capital, Hauser described a current shift in the museum industry to be not just “visitor centric,” but “people centric.”
“Our purpose is to foster whatever it is the visitor was excited about in the products that we sell and encourage them to continue that exploration outside of the museum,” Hauser said. “Internally, we need to see that too.”
These changes include a reexamination of staffing and increased wage transparency. “What is it our employees need to sustain themselves to stay in this line of business?” Hauser explained. “How are we positioning these jobs to fit the needs of employees?”
Adding that “staffing is an issue everywhere,” Brown encouraged retailers to rethink where they look for new staff. “Where are you looking for staffing? There may be places you haven’t looked. I’ve had some great employees from special school districts.”
Another area of human capital the panel considered was the value of volunteers in a retail space. In new conversations around wage transparency, it can be difficult to determine how best to show appreciation to volunteers, especially given that “we can’t do what we do in the retail world without them,” Hauser said. “Don’t just give people the work you didn’t want to do. Try to give them a genuine experience — give them the tools, resources, training and explanation for what they’re doing.”
Brown added that little gifts of appreciation, like chocolate, can go a long way in helping volunteers know that their work is seen and valued.
Each of the panelists agreed that retailers wanting to become more sustainable need to start with their people.
“Your biggest asset is people,” Solt said. “If they are not being invested, your work is not sustainable.”
Inventory and Sales
For retailers who sustainably source product from artisans and crafters worldwide, the global shipping container crisis has led to some unique challenges in getting inventory stocked in a timely fashion. Brown admitted that his store in St. Louis had to find new partners in South America after facing obstacles in getting goods shipped out of Africa.
“We were still able to help indigenous people, we just had to switch to a different country, because of supply chain issues,” he said. “We never gave up, we just had to switch our view a little bit.”
For retailers in the same boat, Brown suggested outside-of-the-box thinking for creative solutions, so long as it stays true to your store’s mission.
Once inventory is sorted, attracting new buyers to maintain a sustainability of sales in the post-pandemic era can be another potential area of improvement for retailers. In regards to this, networking is key, Hauser said.
“Networking is the largest advantage to each of our organizations. In the pandemic, MSA hunkered down and connected with our people as quickly as we could to see who we could help and pivot, vendors and buyers alike. That’s how we were able to survive and continue into this new world.”
Becoming a “JEDI”
When it comes to conversations around justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, the panelists agreed that the retail industry needs to “get off the bench” and become actively involved in the work of accountability and education surrounding these topics. One way to boost education and understanding is to look at the work of local equity and diversity task forces in your local area.
“Reach out and ask them if they would be willing to have a meeting,” Hauser said. “You may find the (diversity) accommodation isn’t that hard, it’s just changing a practice or language around a specific topic.”
Brown shared that the St. Louis Zoo holds periodic ask sessions, where members of staff come together to host Q&As around hot-button issues ranging from LGBTQIA+ rights to segregation and immigration. The events are recorded, so those who were not able to attend the meeting can still learn from the sessions afterward.
“This gives our whole zoo an opportunity to ask questions about being in these different groups,” Brown said. “It’s incredible how many people come to you after these events and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t know that; I learned something new today.’ That brings in that inclusiveness.’”
Hauser added that another way to promote inclusivity is to remember specific facts about the individuals who work in your organization. Remembering certain likes, tastes, hobbies and interests shows your team that you listen to what they say and care about them as a human being instead of as a commodity.