Case Studies

What John Lewis Can Teach All Sustainability Managers

6 months ago


What John Lewis Can Teach All Sustainability Managers

John Lewis have, in my eyes at least, always been a company with clear values. Their ’employee owned’ partnership structure has given them the freedom to plan for the long run not the short run, which makes them well poised to advocate sustainability.

Already, they do an awful lot when it comes to waste management and recycling. If you buy things like beds or electrical goods, they’ll take away your old one and recycle it.

Of course, that’s all well and good, but as of this week, John Lewis have announced a far more exciting pilot scheme.

Focussing specifically on clothing, John Lewis have partnered with Stuffstr to provide an innovative ‘buy back’ service. In essence, customers can use an app to be given a price for their old John Lewis clothes, and, once they’ve got £50 worth, a John Lewis courier will pick them up. The customer then receives an e-voucher for the amount.

Not only is it neat, it provides sustainability managers with 3 key lessons.

Related: Check out my book on CSR and Sustainability strategy.

John Lewis Clothes Recycling | Jason Wicks

1. Be both relevant and proactive

I’ve spoken at great length about the need for organisations to target relevant issues. Considering clothing makes up a notable proportion of John Lewis’ product portfolio, the damaging effects of ‘fast fashion’ are well worth focussing on.

However, correctly targeting issues is only one half of a genuinely effective strategy. A firm’s proactivity must also be taken into account.

The thing is, for CSR to create social change, two things must happen:

  1. Consumers must care about social/environmental issues.
  2. Organisations must invest in tackling social/environmental issues.

However, the best firms reverse the order of these two statements.

When firms are proactive, they invest in tackling issues because it’s the right thing to do, not because they stand to profit. This then makes sustainability more mainstream, and the public care more about the issue as a result.

On the contrary, reactive firms do the opposite. They only invest in issues when enough consumer interest already exists. Sure, this is still better than nothing, but it probably won’t allow firms to gain genuine a competitive advantage and strong corporate reputation.

With their buy back pilot programme, John Lewis are launching an industry first in the UK. While many campaign groups have spoken about the consequences of fast fashion, a retailer the size of John Lewis could genuinely mainstream it, making them a very proactive organisation.

2. Create incentives

Without question, successfully mainstreaming sustainability relies on effective incentivisation. For too many people, sustainability means sacrifice. It means going against what we are naturally incentivised to do. Because of that, it remains something that only a minority of people engage with.

That needs to change. We must get to a point where even people that don’t care about sustainability act in a sustainable way. Correct incentives can do that. By buying back old clothes and even sending a courier to pick them up, John Lewis have taken a giant leap in the right direction.

This becomes even more clear when you compare it to the work of competitor H&M. With that concept, consumers must bring a bag of used clothes into the store, and even then they just get 15% off their next order for each bag they bring in. It’s a far worse incentive.

3. Collaborate

Realistically, creating incentives requires sufficient process innovation.

For large organisations, this can sometimes be too time consuming or financially risky. Not to mention a bit of a hard sell to senior management.

Because of this, collaboration becomes crucial. More often than not, the necessary innovations exist in some form or another. All firms must do is identify them and build mutual beneficial partnerships.

That’s what John Lewis have done with Stuffstr. Stuffstr already have the process infrastructure in place. All John Lewis have really had to do is partner with them. Too many firms want their sustainability programmes to be entirely under their control, which can really restrict innovation and progress.

By creating an effective partnership, John Lewis are showing how it should be done.

John Lewis Clothes Recycling | Jason Wicks


All in all, this is a fantastic step forward by John Lewis.

Considering a truck load of clothes is sent to landfill or incinerated every second, the problem is undeniably clear.

While John Lewis may not be the first retailer to target recycling, I think they’re one of the first to do it properly. They’re idea is super simple and pretty unique, and I think it incentivises customers far more than rival concepts.

They’ve also said that, in the future, there may be an option for customers to donate the money to charity, which is another neat addition.

Personally, the one thing I’d like to see is for them to expand the programme to non John Lewis clothes. It may take a huge amount of industry collaboration, but if customers could recycle all their clothes on the same platform, regardless of brand, then we’d really be getting somewhere.

Realistically though, these things take time. For now, all we can do is applaud the work of companies like John Lewis, and hope it’s the start of many more great things to come.


Hi! I’m an author and blogger within the fields of social impact and responsible business. I believe that businesses can be a force for good in the world, and this website contains my thoughts on how that can work.

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