How to Be a Greener Retailer
Each year a whopping 21,000 new retail stores are built in the United States, comprising nearly a quarter of all new building projects (excluding single-family homes). These are buildings that, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, contribute to the consumption of 40 percent of the world’s total energy (compounded by extended hours of operation), 25 percent of wood harvest and 16 percent of water consumption. And, because of retail’s dependence on being up-to-date and design savvy, often these are buildings are not built to last.
But while it may seem like the temporal—and theatrical—nature of retail is incompatible with the “mud-and-burlap” stereotype of environmentally responsible design, the nation’s largest retailers (like Wal-Mart, Target and Gap) are leading sweeping change by creating completely “green” stores, and a growing number of others are taking heed because, quite simply, it makes good business sense.
Far from the tree-hugging eco-movement of previous decades, today’s greening of retail is rooted in the conventional consumer who has embraced recycling, is concerned about global warming and wants to buy from stores that appeal to these values. By investing in sustainable store policies and design, retailers can trim energy, packaging and other fixed costs; polish their corporate image; and appeal to this escalating consumer movement. And thanks to a bevy of new sustainable products from flooring to paint to shopping bags—all of which are dropping in price due to increasing demand—it is surprisingly easy being green.
Even if you are a bit, well, green to the concept of eco-design, Sandi Pope, associate principal at Callison, a Seattle-based architectural design firm whose clients include Nordstrom, Gap and Nike, said there is no reason to be intimidated by the prospect of making your business more eco-friendly. “People used to be scared to even approach sustainable design because they thought that everything was out of their realm, but now there are very easy things to do,” Pope said, noting it’s best to start small. “Anything you can do—whether it’s starting a recycling program, changing light bulbs or changing paint—can help.”
Whether you are looking to spruce up an existing space or create a building that meets all Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, here are some of the best ways to make stores more sustainable—from quick fixes to full immersion.
Greening your store can be as easy as changing a light bulb. According to Energy Star, a joint program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, retail companies spend nearly $20 billion on energy each year. A mere 10 percent reduction in energy costs for the average supermarket can boost profit margins by as much as 6 percent. Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs can immediately help you start saving. A single bulb, which lasts five to seven years, replaces up to 10 traditional bulbs and uses 75 percent less energy—a savings of $200 a bulb over five years. Not to mention the fact that one CFL bulb saves 500 pounds of coal and a lot of annoyance from having to frequently replace bulbs in all those hard-to-reach spots.
While you’re at it, consider installing light sensors that turn on when they detect movement and automatically shut off after a few minutes. These are particularly helpful in stockrooms that do not need to be lit all the time, and they provide additional security when the store is closed. As for exit signs, which by law must be on at all times, light-emitting diode (LED) versions use only 44 kilowatts of energy annually and cost about $4 per year to operate, versus the $28 that conventional exit signs can rack up in energy costs.
Other deceptively obvious energy-saving tips: keep the drapes down and the door closed when the air conditioning is on during summer months; educate your staff to turn off lights and turn down heating or air conditioning when rooms are unoccupied; and avoid placing computers and lamps near thermostats, as heat from the equipment may affect their readings and lead to increased energy consumption for cooling.
Packaging & Paper
While the paper versus plastic debate rages (plastic bags consume 40 percent less energy to produce and generate 80 percent less waste than paper, but plastic bags can take 1,000 years to decompose whereas paper takes about a month), retailers can avoid both by using recycled bags or eliminating them completely.
If bags are an essential part of your marketing mix, switch to recycled or biodegradable bags, which are derived from renewable resources and are greenhouse gas neutral. Or, invest in quality burlap or organic cotton totes that can reward repeat customers and continue to spread your name at the gym, the grocery store or anywhere else they’re carried.
To further decrease paper waste, stop sending mass mailings to advertise every sale. Instead, keep a notebook near your register for customers to sign up for an e-mail list. “If you get a flyer in the mail, it goes right into the recycling basket,” said Kerstin Block, president of Buffalo Exchange, a new and recycled clothing store based in Tucson, Ariz., with 28 locations nationwide. “It’s a lot less time consuming to open up an e-mail, and we are all short on time.”
Displays & Paint
With the warming spring air and new merchandise that comes along with it, many retailers are looking for a quick makeover. The simplest way to make your space fresh and green: rearrange. “Take some things out of the window, allow light to come in, switch up some of your displays,” says Molly Garretson, a LEED-certified designer for Gensler, a San Francisco architecture and design firm. She is also a member of the Emerging Green Builders, a chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USBGC). “People have a reaction when they go into a space and see it’s been updated,” she said. But rather than tossing out old displays (and contributing to the 50 trillion pounds of waste the United States produces each year), Garretson suggests rearranging displays in innovative ways. If you are having a hard time envisioning a new life for those old displays, ask an artist or a creative friend to come in and help.
Another inexpensive and easy update is simply repainting or adding wallpaper to your space. While regular latex paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs—known carcinogens that are linked to the depletion of the ozone layer), alternatives do exist. Opt for milk and clay paints or lime plasters—all of which are affordable, come in multitudes of colors and are VOC-free. And, according to Garretson, you won’t scare off customers with wafting fumes. “Low-VOC paints don’t have any off-gassing, so people will come into the store and see new colors without smelling fumes,” she said. As for wallpaper, you can now find everything from modern pop patterns printed on recycled paper with vegetable-dye inks to refined antique prints crafted from age-old wooden and brass roller techniques.
If you’re planning a more extensive renovation, start from the ground up. Bamboo, a rapidly renewable resource, provides an equally warm and sophisticated alternative to hardwood flooring. “People love the environment of the store, and they are always asking about the floor,” said Kate McGregor, owner of Kaight, an eco-friendly boutique located in New York’s Lower East Side.
If you prefer wood floors, you can still save trees by purchasing reclaimed floorboards, which are available at architectural salvage lots and some lumberyards. At the very least, select solid woods rather than pressed woods or composites that may contain formaldehyde or other toxic chemicals.
A chic and durable alternative to wood, cork flooring is now available in an array of patterns and can be applied with a peel-and-paste backing. Easy enough to install yourself, you can save money in construction and save the life of trees—cork is manufactured from the bark of the cork oak tree, which is shaved off and then grows back without damage. Plus, cork’s springy step is a welcome relief to salespeople who are on their feet all day long.
Every year, 3.5 billion pounds (920 million square yards) of carpet ends up in landfills, where it will stay for the next 20,000 years, give or take a few. To avoid further mass pileup, innovative carpet companies like Interface have now moved from selling carpet to “leasing” floor covering systems. The company installs carpet in tiles, then (for a monthly fee) keeps it clean and replaces worn-out sections. This reduces the amount of new carpeting needed by about 80 percent.
Architectural salvage lots are indispensable resources for unique reclaimed materials. Urban Spring, a juice bar in New York, was able to procure remnants from a local cathedral, which have been transformed into elegant seating and countertops. Furthermore, area thrift stores and antique shops can
provide a wellspring of gorgeous furniture, which you can always
reupholster in organic cotton or renewable hemp textiles for extra panache.
If rough, railroad-track shelves don’t suit your store concept, there are still alternatives to sterile traditional chrome fixtures, made from environmentally toxic heavy metals. Ecowood Retail Displays, based in Mount Shasta, Calif., offers a distinctive line of cash wrap, perimeter and floor systems made from reclaimed wood with lush, low-VOC finishes. With fixtures in close to 1,000 stores in the United States, the company has used about 100,000 board feet (five semi-trailer loads of reclaimed wood) since 2001—all of which would have otherwise been discarded. Products like Ecowood’s are a particularly good option if you have multiple stores and demand a consistency that can’t be found in one-off thrift store goods.
“If you are thinking about the longevity of your business, embracing green design will set you up for long-term success,” Garretson said. “It creates a life and story that will continue far beyond your store walls.”
Follow these links to get a jump-start on greening your store.
|CFL and LED Lights||Bioshieldpaint.com|
|Treecycle.com||Fixtures and Salvage|