• Insight Sustainable Opportunities Beyond Materials

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10 tactical ways physical retailers can deliver sustainable development

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In our first article Why having a sustainable strategy is important for physical retail we identify that establishing and executing a pathway that leads to the goal of sustainability must now be a key focus for every retail business. This article takes a more tactical viewpoint.

Every sustainable development strategy must consider environmental, economic and social sustainability in order to have impact. Yet, for the majority of retail brands, the conversation surrounding sustainable development largely focuses solely on environmental sustainability, and more specifically on the use of materials and supply chain in store. Not only is this just one small piece of a very big puzzle, it doesn’t take advantage of physical retail’s biggest strength; the ability to use the physical space to raise the awareness of a cause, educate people of the issues and inspire individuals to take action. It is through these activities that brands can extend their sustainable strategy with relative ease to have a considerable social impact as well.


Whilst there is no doubt that materials play an important part in the sustainable development conversation, it is when retailers consider sustainability more broadly that they can have the most impact. The following examples represent a broad snapshot of the opportunities retailers have at their disposal. If you are a retailer with physical stores, we hope that with these tactical initiatives, you are able to better influence your teams and the choices made by the wider business.

01. Materials

As a result of all the focus given to the use of sustainable materials in-store, this is one of the areas where we see a lot of progress.

Retailers must consider what materials are being used and where they are being sourced from. The use of FSC certified timber is becoming more widespread, but brands need to go further.

Patagonia’s Melbourne store uses locally sourced boat lumbers as display shelving alongside displays made from recycled materials.
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Bottletop has built part of their London store from the filament of recycled bottles. Fixtures are 3D printed live by in-store robots, for customers to see. Bottletop’s evolving performative environment communicates the brand’s sustainable ethos and invites customers into their broader sustainability story.

Retailers also need to understand the impact of materials at the end of the store’s life. Are the materials recyclable or reusable? Brands like Glossier, who largely focus on pop-up formats, have used ‘living plant’ elements to define store spaces as an alternative to built fixtures.

Stella McCartney has begun using biodegradable mannequins in her stores whilst Glossier have used ‘living plant’ elements to define store spaces.

The above initiatives represent great progress and go some way to addressing a business’ environmental and economic impact. But is there a social impact? The big challenge with sustainable fixture solutions is that, at best, they raise the customers awareness of the sustainability conversation only slightly. They do not provide any deeper education, inspire action or encourage customers to change their own habits.

02. Extending product life

Many retailers are helping customers change their habits. By encouraging customers to come back to their stores, not to buy new products, but to extend the life of their existing products. This is not a new idea, Apple has been offering device support and repairs for years through the Apple care programme.

But now we find ourselves in a moment where a culture of repair is emerging in society. Partly driven by our desire to produce less waste but also with its link to a sense of hope and a restorative mindset. Many fashion retailers are tapping into this. Enabling customers to get involved in this way, motivating them to take sustainable action for themselves, represents social impact.

Sustainability is central to the Nudie Jeans brand. In their shops customers can have old jeans repaired, return them and get 20% off in-store, or donate them to the Nudie Jeans Recycling Program.
Brands like Hurr and Arket are encouraging consumers to change their habits in a bid to become more sustainable.

03. Rental retail

Many of us are familiar with the idea of renting cars through businesses like Zipcar, understanding that this is a greener approach to car use than car ownership. The same business model is something that retailers are beginning to adopt, especially in the fashion and furniture markets.

Businesses like Rent the Runway and Hurr rent out high-end fashion to customers who would otherwise not be able to afford them as a one off purchase. Arket has set up a children's clothing subscription service to alleviate the clothing waste resulting from fast-growing kids. Brands like IKEA, John Lewis and Muji have established furniture rental initiatives to support Millennials and Gen-Z’ers who are less concerned about ownership. Given that £140m worth of clothing and 22 million pieces of furniture are sent to landfill every year in the UK alone, the real benefit is that these initiatives significantly reduce waste.

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Muji’s furniture subscription service responds to the changing work from home culture and the growing demand for returnable furniture.

A circular economy approach (the practice of designing out waste, keeping products in use for longer and creating a regenerative mindset around resources) enables businesses to take on the long-term responsibility of the products they are introducing to the market. It ensures that the correct ‘end of life’ decisions are made and waste is kept to a minimum. The added benefit of this approach is that it begins to change the mindset of the consumer, motivating a new type of consumption and raising their awareness of a more sustainable lifestyle.

04. Events and campaigns

Some brands are using in store events to raise awareness, educate and inspire their customers. A number of IKEA stores host a series of workshops for customers, designed to educate them and help them live a more sustainable life at home. Their Home of Tomorrow space in Szczecin, Poland hosts workshops, meetings and open discussions with local authorities and activists to help inspire better sustainable habits at home.

In a variety of different formats around the world IKEA offers expert led events focusing on how to live a more sustainable life.

In 2020, UK department store Selfridges took a different approach. They established a movement called ‘Project Earth’ which focused on all aspects of the shopping experience, from product curation (highlighting sustainable fashion brands), to rental, repair and a luxury handbag buy back scheme. The beauty department championed plastic free products whilst their restaurants and food halls promoted plant based and organic foods.

The core purpose of Selfridges Project Earth campaign was to raise awareness amongst customers and inspire them to change the way they shop, to become more sustainable.
Change does not have to be delivered through ‘movements’ or educational events, it can also be in the smaller transactional moments. Retailers like Boots and & Other Stories are offering incentives to customers returning unwanted products and used packaging that can’t be recycled at home.

05. In-store supply chain

The majority of the environmental impact is in the retail supply chain. If consumer brands aspire to take action and have impact, investigating their supply chain is a great place to start. So how does this affect the physical store? The answer, the retail store can play ‘host’ to the supply chain.

Stores will stock less inventory and provide more of a showroom experience. CBRE’s 'Future of Retail 2030' report identifies the 3D printing of products on-demand as an innovation to look out for. When customers want to make a purchase, their unique and personalised product can be printed for them right there in-store.

Whilst we may need to continue to be patient for in-store 3D printing, the concept of in-store manufacture does already exist. Both the fashion and food industries are exploring their own versions of this.

Infarm vertical greenhouses are beginning to appear in supermarkets around the world, including in Whole Foods, Selfridges, M&S and Aldi. Enabling retailers to grow product on site using 95% less water, 75% less fertiliser, no pesticides and reducing transport by 90% compared to traditional agricultural supply chains.

06. Review your property strategy

Choosing the right store location is not straightforward. Retailers must consider a long list of factors, from store size and shape to the catchment area and potential footfall… brand relevance, competition, supply and distribution of product, leasing costs, the list goes on.

Today, we need to add to that list how sustainable the property is. For some retailers there is the belief that targeting new property aligns better with their brand image, or that it provides the blank canvas they desire to deliver the ‘perfect’ environment. But the most sustainable route is to occupy a building that already exists. Even better, occupy a building that needs help; for example a run-down building in need of repair.

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The Urban Outfitters store on Broadway in LA. In place of taking the safe route and opting for a property in one of the traditional parts of town, the brand chose to save the 1917 Rialto theatre from urban decay. This decision, not only renovated the original property details and features, but breathed life back into a part of town that had fallen out of favour.

07. Store accessibility

Considering how easy it is for people to get to and from a store is a sustainability conversation.

Part of the success of the Starbucks Roastery in Shanghai (which has been awarded Platinum LEED certification) is in its proximity to public transport links, as Starbucks accounted for the environmental impact of their customer traveling to this site.

We can also look at store accessibility slightly differently. Rather than focusing on how customers come to the store, consider how the store might go to them? By taking a store to the customer, especially in the more remote areas, the need for a fixed, traditional bricks and mortar presence is removed.

Enjoy, who partner with Telco brands, take the store to the customer whilst the Gucci Live initiative provides a virtual in-store shopping experience.

If the circumstances are right, and if it makes sense for the brand and their offer, this approach not only removes the environmental impact associated with opening a new store, but also reduces store associated travel. Rather than inviting thousands of customers to travel many miles to a fixed store, one portable, mobile store can travel a well-planned and environmentally efficient route between locations and communities. Even better, a virtual experience demands no travel.

08. Become sustainable by association

If it is to be believed that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, retailers should look to build partnerships with other businesses taking strong sustainable action.

Retailers can choose to focus on property run only by LEED certified landlords such as Brookfield Properties in the US. In this way their business becomes more aware of broader sustainable discussions and by default, is integrated into a larger ecosystem of sustainable practices. Mall landlords after all control up to 60% of a retailer's energy footprint.

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The Green Pea Mall in Turin, Italy only offers retail space to brands that meet their strict sustainability criteria.

Alternatively a retailer can choose to only partner with brands and manufacturers who have themselves adopted a clear sustainable strategy. There are examples of malls like the Green Pea retail mall in Turin and retailers like London based pop-up retailer A Sustainable Department store who are doing this.

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London’s A Sustainable Department Store carefully curates its product partnerships based upon sustainability credentials.

09. Fixture design

End of life consideration should not just be limited to the materials used, but also in how the store fixtures are designed.

It is critical to understand the upstream and downstream supply chains. At the point when fixtures are no longer needed, they should be easy to disassemble and the material make-up easy to separate, so they can be recycled. With this aspiration, logic suggests the best design is the one that uses the least number of materials.

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Beautiful People's store in Japan aimed to reduce the initial construction process. This resulted in both time and cost efficiency; along with easy fixture disassembly at end of life, hence completely reusable / recyclable for its next journey.

Retailers need to be able to brief designers from the outset what the intended longevity of a fixture is, so that an appropriate level of quality can be designed in. A fixture that is needed for 2 years will be designed and manufactured differently to one intended to last for 7 years. Wherever possible, retailers should strive to extract the optimum use out of any built fixture before its end of life. It may be that the life of store fixture can extend beyond the life of the store itself. Fixtures may be re-used in other stores, in head offices as training tools, or sold on to other retailers.

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A re-locate and re-use mindset is commonly exercised in the pop-up world. This now needs to cross-over into the more mainstream, long-term store format approach.

As we are all too well aware, retail is constantly evolving. New products and services are appearing quicker than ever before, and stores need to be able to adapt to tell these new stories. But the answer to this challenge is not to continually design, develop and manufacture new displays to accommodate these new offers. Retail designers must build in sufficient flexibility and modularity from the outset, to accommodate the unexpected and prolong the life of the fixture.

10. Utilities and services

An overhaul of any retailers utilities and services can be a big undertaking. Often these are inherited from previous tenants or controlled by landlords and malls. Despite these challenges and barriers, we are seeing a lot of progress in the areas that the retailer can control.

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In Louis Vuitton’s ‘Green Lights’ paper we learn that the brand estimates 50% of its energy usage is in lighting.

Ensuring that LED lighting is installed is a relatively straightforward initiative. LED lights are 75% more energy efficient than an incandescent equivalent and can last 25 times longer. Designers and architects are increasingly leveraging natural light. This not only reduces the demand on artificial light, but positively impacts the wellbeing of the people that use the store environment. Increasing numbers of retailers are deploying smart lighting management technologies so that stores are lit to the appropriate levels and lit only when necessary.

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Mitre 10 in New Zealand use smart automatic-opening windows that provide energy efficient passive climate control.

But this conversation is far bigger than just lighting. Around the world, retailers are looking at a broad range of interventions. Starbucks is monitoring its water usage, whilst numerous big businesses like Apple and IKEA are investing in renewable energy for their properties. The scope for operational teams to progress a business’ sustainable development is huge.

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IKEA is investing in renewable energy and generated more energy than it consumed in 2020.

The good news is, improving the efficiency of your utilities and services has more than just environmental benefits. Energy savings generally mean cost savings too. 90% of retail businesses have highlighted cost saving as the biggest benefit to come out of a review of their estates energy usage. Whilst big interventions can mean big cost savings, small changes can also have impact.

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Following H&M's 2015 decision to remove their open door policy, the business estimates to save 77,522 kWh of energy per store per year. This adds up to as much as $1 million in avoidable annual costs across the 125+ H&M locations with exterior doors.

Just the tip of the iceberg

This snapshot into how broad the sustainability conversation is, demonstrates the amazing things that are already being done. Interestingly, many of the strategies are familiar, we’re just not used to looking at them through the lens of sustainability. Fixture modularity and store location, as examples, have traditionally been driven by other needs. When we examine sustainability closely, it often leads back to what we have previously labelled, good design and good business practice.

Whilst the majority of these initiatives may demand significant change and investment, it’s important to remember that sustainable development can also be delivered via smaller, less overwhelming initiatives. The key is that every retail brand acknowledges that they have a responsibility to establish a sustainable strategy that is achievable for their business and that enables them to make progress now and into the future.

If you have found this helpful and would like to read more, take a look at our article Why having a sustainable strategy is important for physical retail.

Next Steps...

Need help in identifying sustainability opportunities across your retail estate, for the short, medium and long term?
Please feel free to reach out to us here and we can discuss in more detail.


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