Dutch department store chain De Bijenkorf has embarked on an eco strategy that is set to intensify. Here, head of sustainable business Justin Pariag sheds light on the goals achieved and what lies ahead.
Founded in 1870 in Amsterdam, high-end department store chain De Bijenkorf–which forms part of the Selfridges Group’s roster–is one of the Netherland’s key retail names. Since 2016, when Justin Pariag stepped in as head of sustainable business, change has been afoot to make the concept greener across its entire operation and product offer.
How would you sum up De Bijenkorf’s sustainability strategy and what are you hoping to achieve?
The health of the planet is at a critical point and there’s a definite imbalance–we need the Earth more than the other way around. We must take action, and fast. Since I stepped in nearly five years ago, we’ve taken a more strategic approach to our sustainability efforts, aligning these with several initiatives–one example being the Science- Based Target Initiative that in turn aligns with the Paris Agreement. In short, our aim is to make our operation more sustainable, reducing our carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. Alongside this ambitious but necessary goal, we’re striving to inspire consumers and suppliers alike to act in a more sustainable manner. By 2025, we want 100% of our offer to consist of sustainable brands.
Responsible production and sustainable materials are key. Fabrics and finishes have to be certified–think GOTS-certified cotton, for example. Many of the brands we work with today have made efforts to go green, such as Levi’s, Ganni and Selected. We work closely with our brand portfolio, highlighting the items within their ranges that match our level of commitment. On the cosmetics side, we recently banned products containing plastic glitter and I wish other retailers would follow suit as this would help the message get through to consumers. Inspiring change has to start with education and we must all step up.
What’s the biggest challenge in getting fashion brands to switch to more eco-friendly business models and product offerings?
Certain brands might be unsure how to transition to more eco-friendly processes. We encourage our brand partners to share stories about their sustainability work, and this can be daunting to brands that feel they haven’t achieved enough, particularly since today’s consumer is so well informed. In these instances, we like to offer as much guidance as we can, working together with brands to help them find ways to tackle problem areas such as plastic packaging and materials that could be made in more sustainable ways.
Aside from product improvements, quite a lot of change has taken place in-store and across your distribution centers. Tell us about the key initiatives.
We’ve addressed issues across every area of the business from waste management to packaging. Last year, we opened a new distribution center that has achieved a 5-star Breeam certification. The roof is fitted with 17,000 sq. meters of solar panels, and in the building you’ll find a new machine hard at work–it’s able to automatically pack hard goods in a way that ensures you’re not shipping boxes full of air. We’ve also introduced reusable dust covers made from 100% certified recycled PET. We’ll be using these to ship all of our hanging goods to our stores, and they’re reused time and time again to cut out the thousands of single-use plastic bags used per year.
To what degree do consumers visiting the store grasp the green thinking, and how are you going about inspiring and educating them?
Every year, research reveals exciting progress. Over the last three years, we’ve seen green thinking grow among consumers. Seventy percent of those surveyed in 2020 took sustainability into consideration before making a purchase. In 2018, that figure was 50% so there’s been a healthy rise. To inspire and educate, we recently ran a seven-part campaign–in-store and online–called “the future is green.” This involved a range of focus-areas, including stories around fair trade chocolate and the dangers of plastic waste as well as the endangered bee–which we’re actively working to create awareness about as part of our sustainability strategy. We also make sure to offer solutions to problems we highlight, such as the microplastic shedding that occurs when you wash your polyester garments. In this case, we recommend the Guppyfriend washing bag, which acts like a filter.
We’ve established a series of community-focused, volunteer-based initiatives developed in close collaboration with schools and care homes. Tackling loneliness among the elderly is an important part. Before the Covid-19 crisis hit, we used to invite care home residents to our stores for a day of shopping and pampering. During the pandemic, we had to find other ways of offering support and inspiration, so we came up with a newspaper called The Happy Netherlands Newsletter. We filled it with positive news, crosswords and cartoons–all of which was developed by members of our team. All in all, we put in 1,500 hours of voluntary work in 2020, with an even more ambitious target for 2021.
How hopeful are you that the industry as a whole will clean up its act?
As brands and retailers, we’re by definition “trendsetters” in that our businesses set out to inspiring people. Sustainability is not a trend, of course, but I’m sure we’ll be able to find creative ways to inform consumers about sustainable choices at every level–from product and packaging to shipping. Speaking of De Bijenkorf efforts in particular, we’re lucky to have support from Alannah Weston, the chairman of our parent company Selfridges Group. There’s real sustainability commitment there and to have a leader at the highest level getting actively involved is amazing. The same goes for our CEO Giovanni Colauto, a man I’d describe as a real sustainability advocate. As an industry, we have to work together to achieve results–secrecy has no place in the industry today. The clock is ticking and we have to act fast as a united front.
[Please note: A shortened version of this interview was published in the printed issue of The SPIN OFF, #01]