Integrating Sustainability into the Retail Industry 

Vice President of Sustainability and Compliance for the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), Adam Siegel is helping to redefine how retailers think about sustainability as the industry transitions from tactical sustainability—directly addressing energy efficiency, carbon reporting, and recycling—to sustainability as strategy. 

Adam provides RILA members with education and networking opportunities that enable retailers to learn about sustainability from each other. The trade association supports the largest retailers in the country, whose membership ranks include Target, Nike, Walmart, The Home Depot, CVS Health, Apple and Walgreens. Sustainability knowledge-sharing is something RILA has practiced for eight years because members demanded it.

Although retailers operate across the country, some of their corporate offices are clustered regionally. Adam set up regional lunches several times a year after he realized there was an opportunity to strengthen the network of professionals working on the same issues. Including regional experts in the workshops RILA hosts accelerates learning for everyone. 

Adam also coordinates the efforts of several committees, each working on specific sustainability challenges like conflict minerals or programs such as environmental compliance, green leases and energy management. Adam also drafts industry reports and sees the industry is maturing. 

We’ve issued several sustainability reports and the last one started to show that seniority in sustainability professionals is rising, team size is growing, more resources are allotted to them, and they have broader reach within the organization. The field of sustainability in retail is in its early days and still needs to evolve, but it appears to be maturing.

He found other trends in retail: companies adopt the Global Reporting Initiative guidelines for overall reporting and use the Carbon Disclosure Project to report carbon, energy and water information to benchmark their efforts. The Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark framework is emerging as a standard for real estate. Beyond that, there is little standardization. Comparing sustainability performance across product lines remains difficult.

RILA found an array of metrics used by the industry for their suppliers. These range from using the Supplier Self-Assessment to evaluate where a product was made to metrics specific to product categories. Some retailers choose to focus on chemicals management. Working groups like the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) are developing standards for electronic appliances—like vacuum cleaners, blenders, and microwaves.  The apparel industry is beginning to adopt the Higg Index.

Standardization in retail regarding sustainability hasn’t happened yet. Developing industry standards requires consensus, and leaders want to keep moving. “But,” says Adam, “I think there will be consolidation over time.” The tools and frameworks he relies on to coordinate the efforts of RILA members include systems thinking and change management. He credits MIT Sloan for giving him the rigorous training he needed to understand how to think about and lead change. 


I really appreciate seeing things from a systems perspective and it inform all aspects of my work, from organizing committees to performing my daily work. Leadership and change management classes like L-Lab, S-Lab and System Dynamics and the ability to manage and communicate change and complex problems are all things I learned at MIT Sloan.

Adam leads the development of RILA’s annual Retail Sustainability Conference, and in 2014 they launched a new program for the sustainability community: Retail Horizons. With such profound change happening in the industry, RILA is working to integrate sustainability into its future. Working with Forum for the Future to facilitate discussions about what’s ahead, he sees the opportunity for sustainability professionals in retail to foster and create sustainable change that could redefine the retail industry.

Photo credit: Kurtis Garbutt