Sustainability in Retail: Achieving Eco-Friendly, Ethical & Socially Conscious Product Lifecycle


Home > Articles > Sustainability in Retail: Achieving Eco-Friendly, Ethical & Socially Conscious Product Lifecycle

Can a retail business be eco-friendly, ethically responsible, socially conscious and profitable all at once? Over the past decade, the retail industry has seen a huge swing in all aspects of the business. It has been increasingly harder to improve on or maintain the high margin of cost versus revenue that has been the windfall of past years. On top of this, reality customers have become fed up with the overconsumption expectations, and the blind-eye brands have turned to their less than ideal processes. As a result the retail, and in particular the technology & fashion industry, has been tasked with improving processes for more ethical results.

First-Life of Products

The First-Life of a product includes the research, the production and the first use by the consumer/customer. This first-life is often the most elusive to track the impact that is caused or relieved through responsible practices. This includes the following categories:

Social Impact:

Have the workers that produce, transport, handle, or sell the goods been treated humanely through:

  • sanitary, habitable, and generally safe working conditions
  • fair and equal pay, other compensation, and additional benefits
  • consumer accessibility of the product without biases
  • company’s participation in the community or donations to the general extended community as a result of profit from the product
  • business taking actions to support the rights and values of the employees/customers though vocal, legal, and philanthropic practices

“Fundamental human rights are not a value judgment.” -Eileen Fisher ~ Clothing is Political

Environmental Impact:

Has the production of the garment been sourced, produced, transported, handled, and sold with the least (if possible ) impact on the environment through:

  • Production resource management of water, electric, fossil fuels, and safe air
  • Production ensuring the product is made with material that is sourced from ethical and sustainable practices
  • Production waste is either reused/recycled or disposed of in responsible ways
  • Packaging of the product follows the above protocol
  • Shipping, fulfillment and sale of the product seeks to minimize the use of fossil fuels and optimizing route to distribution and to end users
  • Facilities used to store and sell product reduce, offset, or eliminate their environmental impact

Consumer Impact:

Once the consumer purchases a product, the business should intend for that product to have an extended shelf life or viability that meets or exceeds the consumer expectations, such as:

  • product is NOT engineered to fail, but rather to last
  • limited warranty due to defect/damage
  • satisfaction guarantee that prevents excessive destruction/dismissal of the product before full term of use
  • have a value and plan that extends itself to a second- and third-life of use
  • are transparent about their practices and methods
  • take the time to certify their business or products to externally accepted standards

Second-Life of Products

The Second-Life of a product involves the resale or reuse of the item after the first consumer/customer no longer has a use for the product, or the product has lost its original value due to use. Giving a product a Second-Life falls into categories like:


Many times the simplest solution is often the best. In the case of retail products, a simple repair could mean the difference between continued use or eventually being discarded. Solutions for repairs can range from:

  • offering classes or tutorials
  • included or inexpensive repair kits
  • creating an easy solution to receive products for extensive repairs
  • offering at-home services


Often a product that is unwanted from the first consumer is still a functioning or viable product. In these cases, both the consumer and the original producing business can benefit from a reuse program. Some popular programs include:

  • Original business buy-back programs that turn into gently used consignment
  • Consignment/thrift business where customers get money or credit selling to a store
  • Rental programs where multiple customers can rent the same product so it receives an extended life
  • Closet swaps where friends and acquaintances trade clothing with each other
  • Donations to ethical & charitable organizations

In the USA as much as 51% of consumers say over half of their wardrobe is made of a pre-owned item* Understanding the environmental savings of buying pre-owned fashion

Third-Life of Products

The Third-Life of a product involves the recycling or reuse of a product as something other than its original use. There comes a point in which a product is no longer able to be used in its original form or capacity. At this point, the consumer should have the opportunity to remake or recycle the product into something new. Depending on the product, one of the following options should be available:


Take components or deconstructed elements and turn them into something new. This could be as simple as sewing the two good halves of shirts together to create a new shirt, creating a bird feeder from a soda bottle, or turning an old computer hard-drive into backup storage. The core of the practice is akin to Do-It-Yourself (DIY) where the consumer or another manufacturer are not producing the original components but configuring them into something new.

Recycle with Half-Life:

Sometimes a product can be recycled and turned back into a new version of itself. An example would be a soda bottle being melted back down and turned back into another soda bottle. This is a direct recycling program but has a limitation of the product’s core material degradation overtime. Often the quality of the metal or plastic can not be recycled indefinitely back into the same product it once was. This is called the half-life of the recycled material and at some point cannot be used.

Recycle Anew:

When the material of a product is not suitable for its original use or there is other demand for a secondary use, this product is reduced down to a base material. This is often the case with plastic recycling where the product is turned back into a pellet-base that can then be turned into other materials, such as filament, or even melted and extruded. Other materials can follow their own processes and ultimately be reproduced into something unlike the original.

Estimated 22 Million Tons of Microfibers added to Oceans between 2015-2050 ~ A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future


The retail industry has become a complex business that supports every aspect of the consumer life. The responsibility to create an ethical and sustainable future depends not only on the business producing the product to have a strategy that supports this goal, but the consumer taking active participation in continuing the lifecycle of the product outside of abandonment.

Some BIG BRANDS that Walk the Walk: