Mapping the sustainability activities of retailers

For UNEP, PRé surveyed retailers in different countries and conducted a comprehensive literature review about sustainability value chain management. Knowing what value chain management strategies retailers use helps guide improvement.


UNEP, the voice of the environment in the United Nations system, wanted to map retailer sustainability activities that influence supply chains and consumers. The lack of a comprehensive mapping of retailer sustainability activities was preventing UNEP from optimally utilizing its resources to assist retailers in advancing their global efforts toward increased sustainable consumption and production (SCP).


PRé conducted a study that included a comprehensive literature review and a survey of thirty-six retailers from thirteen countries. The surveys were performed locally by PRé’s global partners in their respective countries. The results of the study were presented in a multi-stakeholder retailer workshop  and the feedback served to validate the results and improve the quality of the study.

In general, retailer actions that influence supply chains were found to vary based on category (energy, packaging, human and worker rights – see image below), retailer engagement strategy (active/passive), and economic status of the country (developed/emerging) in which the retailer is located. The image below visualizes the categorization and classification of retailer activities, thereby indicating that the most common retailer sustainability activity of those surveyed is agricultural practices and that environmental activities outnumber social activities when summed.

Somewhat surprisingly, most retailers were found not to utilize life cycle thinking when addressing sustainability issues. Retailers in the consumer goods industry often misinterpreted life cycle management to be value chain management. The primary difference between life cycle management and value chain management lies in the scope of the product life cycle being considered. Life cycle management considers the entire life cycle (cradle-to-grave, including use-phase and end-of-life) whereas value chain management considers only the partial life cycle (cradle-to-gate, limited to production chain phases and excluding use-phase and end-of-life). When evaluating the drivers for retailers to take action, survey responses indicate that retailers are prioritizing the triple bottom line in their strategies, thereby validating a generally discussed assumption of sustainability in business. Some gaps in sustainability-based retailer activities were found to be shared by retailers in emerging and developed economies, whereas others were unique. Lack or limited use of environmental declarations and the limited use of LCA for decision making due to inaccurate LCA data and inappropriate LCIA methodology are two examples of shared gaps across developed and emerging economies. Gaps in developed economies were focused primarily on the insufficiency of LCA methods, data, and tools, whereas gaps in emerging economies were spread across consumer education and engagement, regulations, strategy, and life cycle thinking.

The difference in reported gaps between retailer activities in emerging and developed economies reflects the maturity of retailer activities in developed countries. The most frequently cited barrier to retailer sustainability activities was the added expenses. Multi-stakeholder organizations share the financial burden among their members to understand sustainability impacts of products over their life cycle, but since they are membership based, it is an entry barrier to interested retailers.


Working with PRé, UNEP discovered the following value-driven benefits:

  • The need to promote the use of life cycle thinking as a strategy to advance sustainable development among retailers.
  • The importance of evaluating the local context for retailer activities and assessing the effectiveness of prominent retailer activities.
  • The immediate need to create a freely accessible collaboration and knowledge communication platform. This recommendation has now been implemented in the form of the Global SCP Clearinghouse.
  • The necessity for an international policy framework for product sustainability information.

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