Why closing stores for climate change is good for business

It won’t be business as usual at the Canadian operations of at least two prominent retailers on Friday (Sept. 27), as both MEC and Lush Cosmetics close their stores—and in the latter’s case, its e-commerce capabilities— to allow employees to participate in the Global Climate Strike.

Taking place across 150 countries, the Global Climate Strike evolved out of the “Fridays for Future” school strikes championed by Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg to raise awareness of the dangers of unchecked climate change.

Despite being a nascent movement, businesses are smart to get behind it, say some retail and cause marketing experts.

Screen shot 2019-09-26 at 5.32.44 PM.png

“There should be so many more companies closing their doors [and] leaning into this,” says Phillip Haid, co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based social impact agency Public Inc. “They have a vested interest, because their businesses are going to be in peril if we don’t tackle the climate crisis.” Public is also closing the doors of its Toronto office for about three hours on Friday to enable its 38 staffers to participate in the event.

While other retailers including Indigo Books & Music and Lululemon Athletica don’t plan to close stores, they will allow staff members who are scheduled to work to participate in the event.

Mindshare Canada’s chief strategy officer, Sarah Thompson says that participating in the Global Climate Strike is a can’t-lose proposition for brands—so long as they back up their talk with real action around aspects of their business that help the environment, such as reduced packaging and improved supply chain.

“It is in the half-hearted measures that consumers will react negatively,” she says. “Sustainability is not a tactic, it is a commitment. From a sales perspective, the people that always purchased from these brands are probably more likely to continue to do so—it really does reinforce the core values to their core consumers.”

While companies are still trying to strike the right balance between profit and purpose, Public’s Haid says the goodwill generated among both customers and employees by championing initiatives of this type has the potential to far exceed any short-term revenue declines.

He points to U.S. outdoor retailer REI’s decision to close its stores on Black Friday in the U.S. as an example of how social purpose and business can be aligned. REI claims that it has added one million new members each year since launching its #OptOutside initiative in 2015.

“When you do things like the climate march, it accrues so many more benefits to your business, and the short-term loss of revenue is negligible,” says Haid.

Toronto retail expert Ed Strapagiel agrees. One day equates to only about 0.28% of a year’s worth of store hours, he says, calling it a “round off error” in companies’ financial statements. “And it’s not as if those sales are lost forever,” he adds. “The retailer’s better customers will simply shop on Saturday.”

Both MEC and Lush have cultivated reputations as values-based, purpose-driven companies, which means their participation in the climate strike is coming from what Haid describes as a “very authentic” place.

That’s important in an era of heightened consumer cynicism, particularly as brands have embraced a variety of causes in pursuit of goals that might not be entirely altruistic.

“If you’re just going to jump on the purpose bandwagon, and not actually try to tackle an issue or put any material energy, time or money against it, you will see blowback,” he says. “You might score a short-term win because people aren’t paying close attention, but long-term it will degrade and really harm your brand. It’s so much better not to do it.”

MEC informed customers of its decision in a Sept. 20 e-mail featuring the attention-getting subject line “Don’t visit a store on Sept. 27.” Anyone opening the e-mail was greeted by bold proclamation “WE’RE CLOSING OUR STORES,” above a button reading “find out why.”

Clicking on the button took readers to a blog post by CEO Phil Arrata explaining the company’s rationale for closing its 22 Canadian stores until 5 p.m. on Friday. It is the first time the company has done something of this magnitude, he wrote, noting that the company is “deeply concerned” about rising temperatures.

“We have known for a long time that operating our business and selling products has an impact on the planet,” he wrote. “While our record of leadership in sustainability and advocacy makes us frontrunners in the outdoor industry, we recognize the need to take an even greater stand.”

Lush Cosmetics’ North American CEO Mark Wolverton, meanwhile, described his company’s decision to close all of its Canadian stores plus its e-commerce operations a “no-brainer,” noting that it has “deep roots” in environmental activism. Lush’s U.S. stores were closed last Friday, the first day of the Climate Strike.

“We all share this planet, so we need to band together to sound the alarm and show our politicians that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option,” he wrote. “The climate crisis won’t wait, and neither will we.”

It’s inevitable that other companies will include the Global Climate Strike in their future corporate social responsibility efforts, predicts Haid. The proof, he says, is in brands’ involvement with the LGBTQ+ community.

“There were only a few brands willing to do it early, but what happens is it gets normalized and feels safe, and then everyone comes along.”

Chris Powell