While retail is all about what’s next, green design is about lasting solutions. Retailers promote consumption; conservationists condemn it. Retailers and designers celebrate packaging; planeteers eschew it.
Retailers build stores; environmentalists decry that.
According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), buildings account for at least one-third (some estimates say half) of our nation’s total energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, raw material use and waste output. Retailers are responsible for more built space in the U.S. than any other sector. Yet their spaces account for just 3 percent of all USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified projects nationwide.
There are several reasons why more retailers have not embraced earth-friendly practices. Store property is typically leased rather than owned, so savings from reduced energy use go to the landlord, not the retailer. Frequent changes to finishes, fixtures and casework are necessary to keep the shopping environment fresh. Customers expect – even covet – the elaborate shopping bags and packaging.
But today these hurdles are less relevant than the fact that customers – including the hotly pursued “millennials” and members of the “LOHAS” movement (people who lead “lifestyles of health and sustainability”) – want to know what retailers are doing about climate change.
Right now, the answer is not much. For a sector that prides itself on trend-setting, retailers are at the tail end of one of the biggest to sweep the nation. Consider The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s December 2006 declaration. “We reached a tipping point this year – where living, acting, designing, investing and manufacturing green came to be understood by a critical mass of citizens, entrepreneurs and officials as the most patriotic, capitalistic, geopolitical, healthy and competitive thing they could do.”
Friedman cited Wal-Mart as the poster child for making green profitable, in part by making it scale to the point that prices come down. Meanwhile, USA Today reported that close to 70 percent of 16- to 25-year-olds consider a company’s social and environmental commitment when deciding where to shop.
The big box stores are making progress, particularly in energy use. And companies like Starbucks, REI, IKEA and Aveda have strong sustainability policies that are intrinsic to their brand. However, retail in general is lagging behind virtually every other sector of the economy.
Easy as Changing a Light Bulb
The good news is: We can change.
Most retailers have switched from incandescent downlights to compact fluorescents (CFL) for general lighting. If you haven’t, now is the time. CFLs consume 75 to 80 percent less energy and emit light quality on par with incandescents. In fact, when the energy-efficiency is combined with not having to change a bulb for several years (instead of changing one every three to six months), upgrading to CFLs has an almost immediate payback. Plus, energy-efficiency standards keep rising. And stores in states such as California already are modifying their national lighting packages to comply.
If CFLs currently illuminate your store, you can go one step further with ceramic metal halides (CMH), which are about three times as efficient as incandescents, last up to five times longer and have a better Color Rendering Index rating than halogens.
After you’ve changed a few light bulbs, consider switching to “green power” – electricity that is generated from renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar. Energy savings from your new lighting will offset the slight cost increase, your customers will appreciate the gesture and you’ll help push demand. Retailers already purchasing green power include Starbucks, FedEx Kinkos, REI and Liz Claiborne.
You can also begin using green cleaning products and, for about a buck and half, you can install a faucet aerator on the back room sink to reduce water use by up to 20 percent.
Ideas for Your Next Remodel
If you are undertaking a minor remodel, consider these steps:
• Repaint walls instead of tearing them down – and use low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints. New color can have a dramatic effect.
• If replacing carpeting, consider using carpet tiles. The styles and colors are myriad and they’re easy to install, don’t require toxic adhesives and are easily changed out when soiled. Even better, look for manufacturers that have take-back or lease programs or recycle their carpets.
• Consider using renewable flooring materials like bamboo, linoleum or cork, or those with recycled content, such as porcelain tile or concrete.
• Use a contractor who’ll recycle construction waste. You’ll reduce landfill volume and save on tipping fees.
• Work with your designer to create flexible systems that can be reconfigured to transform the space. The goal is to get the most range out of your design.
Lead with LEED
If you are looking at a full gut or new store, find a LEED-accredited designer who can help you create a more sustainable environment in ways that connect with your brand. The USGBC’s LEED Retail for New Construction committee is currently accepting participants to test a new rating system for retail projects. Even if you feel you can’t go for certification, you’ll begin to see the possibilities in green design, ranging from green roofs and daylighting to locally sourced materials and Forest Stewardship Council-certified woods.
Companies often find that once they start looking for greener practices, they want to do more. Work with landlords and developers to negotiate favorable lease terms based on environmental performance. Partner with vendors to find green alternatives in materials and building practices. Challenge your architects to design responsibly.
Retail is a very creative industry, filled with talented and imaginative people. We can move to a leadership position in green design by doing what we do best – capitalizing on a trend by making it fresh, desirable and smart.
Sandie Pope, LEED AP, is an associate principal at Callison (Seattle). She has worked exclusively in retail for the past three decades and is committed to integrating sustainable principles into retail design.
Kjell Anderson, LEED AP, is an associate at Callison who recently presented “Creating a Sustainable Plan” to the Institute of Store Planners in Seattle.