Retailers increasingly ask for sustainability information from the brands
whose products they sell. But multiple reporting is causing confusion and taking resources from brand sustainability teams. The Sustainability Data Exchange Project (SDEX) now offers a platform that can solve this – for free.

“About one and a half years ago, brands started asking us for help with the numerous excel forms coming from their retailer partners requesting sustainability-related data for their products,” shares Maïté Angleys, Advisor Corporate Responsibility at German Federation of Sporting Goods Industry (BSI).

This eventually led to the collaboration between BSI and European Outdoor Group (EOG) called SDEX, led by Maïté Angleys and Katy Stevens, Head of CSR and Sustainability at the EOG. When reflecting on the early discussions, Angleys recalls that this was initially considered good news. After all, retailers have long been seen as the critical link needed to communicate product sustainability information with end-consumers. This seemed to be a positive development.

But the more BSI and EOG conferred with other brands, the more they heard that these forms were taking up exorbitant amounts of time from sustainability teams – and worse, it was on the rise. Rab was one such brand that expressed concern that all was not as it should be:

“Consumers demand that we explain how our products are more sustainable,” explains Debbie Read, Head of Corporate Communications and CSR at Equip Outdoor Technologies UK Ltd.

“Naturally, consumers are also looking for an easy-to-understand claim. The trouble is, sustainability isn’t that simple. So, brands like us at Rab, are being asked by retailers to provide ‘sustainability data.’ But this data can be misinterpreted by brands, retailers, and consumers. Providing retailers ad hoc data is now resource intensive and prone to error.”

Retailers also get lost in translation

On the other hand, retailers too were found to be struggling with inconsistent answers to their questions – a nuisance, when the entire purpose is to communicate consistent, comparable product sustainability information to the customer. “As retailers, we believe it is part of our obligation to consumers to provide accurate and trustworthy information on a product’s environmental and social impacts to encourage more considerate buying decisions,” shares Melanie Gruenwald, Head of Sustainability at Yonderland.

“Unfortunately, the level of information provided by brands often comes in varying degrees of detail and varying formats, making it incredible difficult for us to standardize and upload the information to our channels.”

In other words, somehow, somewhere, the wires were getting crossed. And despite all the extra work, the result was inconsistent product sustainability data that only served to confuse all parties involved. Perhaps a pre-competitive, collaborative approach could help solve this? BSI and EOG set to work.

A solution begins to take form

“Of course, any solution would have to acknowledge that every organization has differing views in what they are looking for in terms of sustainability,” explains Maïté Angleys,

“That said, what we were hearing was that retailers were interested in the same information, only with their own unique wording or metric.”

The SDEX team began collecting questionnaires from the major retailers, and it didn’t take long to identify significant overlaps.

“Everybody was indeed asking the same thing, only in different ways,” says Maïté Angleys.

‘What if there was a harmonized way to collect this data?’ they asked. The team set about meticulously mapping these retailer spreadsheets and questionnaires and then consolidated them in a harmonized data exchange questionnaire. Once they received feedback from the retailers that their questionnaire successfully included every single question they had, the SDEX team knew it was ready for real world testing.

Following two beta testing rounds of the consolidated questionnaire together with 22 brands and retailers, the SDEX Questionnaire was finalized and officially released in July 2023. To house this data and ensure it is consumable by a retailer’s own data management systems, a prototype SDEX Platform has subsequently been launched in fall 2023. Though developed in collaboration with Outtra and aligned to its widely-used data ecosystem, the SDEX Platform is publicly available and does not require any memberships.

Now, instead of filling in data for every single product in a brand’s entire portfolio for each individual retailer, doing so just once per new product is possible for all actors, big or small.

Rab’s “Material Facts” helps enable informed customer buying decisions through comprehensible data.

Industry responds positively

According to Maïté Angleys, the development phase in 2023 has exceeded all expectations. The SDEX trials have demonstrated that the potential for time savings for brands can be substantial, and retailers can now get the quality and comparable data they’ve been after all along, to the benefit of their customers.

“At Rab, we’ve been frustrated with the lack of clarity around sustainability criteria, so working to support the SDEX is a really positive step in the right direction,” shares Debbie Read.

“Collaborating to agree on a methodology and definitions ensures that the industry is increasing transparency and understanding by using the same sustainability data sets. The SDEX tool will ultimately reduce misunderstanding, reduce workload and streamline data submissions into something meaningful and honest.”

Similarly, retailers are finding the value of a harmonized approach to data collection and sharing:

“Having a single source of product information on environmental and social features of a product would be a great help to all parties involved. Brands will save time filling in the extensive information for all their retail clients, while we as retailers can adapt our systems to the format of the standardized template and speed up the process on our ends,” shares Melanie Gruenwald.

‘Time saving potential is huge!’

Despite these early successes and positive reviews, Maïté Angleys suspects that a degree of hesitation remains with some outdoor businesses. What if the SDEX just ends up becoming one additional report, instead of replacing them all?

To that end, Maïté Angleys reminds that with SDEX, the heavy lifting has already been done: A retailer-tested and approved, harmonized questionnaire is freely available, making it possible to eliminate entire days’ worth of work. All that’s needed is more buy-in from retailers and brands.

“The time saving potential here is huge!” concludes Maïté Angleys. Savings which, in turn, can be redirected to drive actual sustainability action.

 

Photos: SDEX/Rab

Jonathan Eidse
jonathan.eidse@norragency.com
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