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Sustainable Momentum

As the retail industry keeps moving toward a recovery, is green design following suit?



There’s a buzz in the air again. Design firms are adding staff. Requests for proposals are coming through. Retail epicenters like New York’s Fifth Avenue and Paris’ Avenue des Champs-Élysées are welcoming new flagships.

So as the industry moves forward, albeit at a cautious pace, is green design still part of the conversation?

To develop a picture of the state of green retailing, we brought together retailers and designers to gather their thoughts on how green retail has changed, what challenges still exist and what the future holds.

VMSD: Last year when we took the pulse of the industry, the sentiment was that green design was slow because the whole industry was slow. Now that activity is picking back up, is green design following?
Rachel Zsembery:
It’s almost as if the conversation concerning green has changed within the last year. We still find retailers that want to go through a holistic approach with LEED certification. But in a lot of cases, it’s more about identifying specific areas where you can make a targeted improvement and then tracking the paybacks for that on an individual basis, which seems a little more manageable.

Todd Taylor: In our world, it never slowed. Regardless of whether you’re going forward with new construction or renovating, there are always opportunities to incorporate the principles from a sustainable perspective. We’ve tried to continue to move in that vein as opposed to stopping because the funds aren’t available.

Lori Kolthoff: I think technology has come a long way, too, and groups like the military and the automotive industry are starting to share that technology and making things available that we didn’t have before. We’re also seeing more retailers asking designers to bring it to the table.


So are retailers the ones pushing green design forward?
Jim Sloss:
I wouldn’t say that we’re pushing, but we’ve been reaching out to the vendor community and letting them know our interest in doing green design. The more questions we ask, the more we learn how to improve our practices and then we’re a little bit better about our choices in what we specify.

Kolthoff: It used to be that retailers would come to us and ask, “What can we do to give the feeling that we’re environmentally friendly?” That conversation is completely gone. Now, there’s more of a commitment and they’re asking, “What’s out there now? What can manufacturers develop for me? What can we do to push the demand for these types of products?” If manufacturers see companies such as Darden and Macy’s requesting it, they’re going to respond.

Is the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program still playing a role?
Years ago when LEED first came out, there was some energy and excitement about it. But the reality is that a lot of retailers are going out and building one building and using that as a model. We’ve done a similar thing where we’ve built several of them across our brands and now we’re taking those lessons and applying them into our prototype designs. But I’m not going out and getting LEED certification, which, frankly, is very laborious and very expensive. So the USGBC, for all its good things, has started a movement.

Kolthoff: I see it the same way as I saw ADA when it first came to light. It came on board and there were a ton of people who had to go get degrees to make sure we knew how to put it into our buildings. And it cost more and everyone was fearful. It’s the same with the green movement. It’s the right thing to do, there is an understanding, there is less fear, there is more success. But to echo what Todd says, I don’t know that LEED needs to be anything but a conduit to reach established sustainable environments. It is the right thing to do and we will follow those footsteps and keep moving forward with that effort.

Zsembery: With the way that LEED 2012 works, it’s going to be asking for full disclosure from manufacturers on their products. This is going to completely change the way these companies market and the way they manufacture a lot of products.

What appeal does green design have for retailers? Is it the marketing benefits or the potential cost savings?
I think a lot of companies look at the issue from two sides. Darden is very much in the public eye, so that’s important from a marketing standpoint to say “we’re green.” Is there a direct payback? Probably not. But from a movement forward, I think there’s an intrinsic value. And from a cost savings, if I look at energy-efficient lighting, for example, in one restaurant alone we can save between $3000 to $6000 a year just changing out incandescent lamps to LEDs.


Zsembery: Another benefit for clients is that employees take such pride in working in these spaces. So it can also become an employee retention strategy.

Sloss: Macy’s decided not to promote it as a marketing piece because we didn’t want to overpromise and underperform. We really felt it was more important to do it as a practice and a lifestyle.

What elements of sustainable design have gotten easier in the last few years?
Recycling of our construction waste has become so much easier because there are so many more local companies that will help, so we don’t have to pay those extensive costs, especially fuel costs.

Kolthoff: It wasn’t that long ago that we used to put a few items on the table and say, “OK, here’s our green items and they’re oatmeal-colored and that’s about it.” Now, color isn’t an issue, texture isn’t an issue. You can specify sustainable products that you never could before.

Sloss: I’d add that not only have we have gone from that oatmeal-looking color with no texture or variety, but costs are coming down, too. So these options are becoming much more viable without paying a premium.

What areas offer the greatest opportunities for development?
We use a lot of water, and if I look on the West Coast, water is like gold and I pay a premium for it. So if I can’t find ways to reduce my water usage, then I have to pass those costs on to my consumers. So, on our restaurant exteriors, we’re using lots of drip irrigation and smart boxes that tell you when you need to water. Inside, we’re putting aerators into faucets and finding new cleaners that don’t use water to mop the floors.


Zsembery: I think the energy conversation is still at the forefront, as well. LEDs in both performance and price have come to the point now where they’re a real contender. Another thing we’re seeing is an understanding of what’s in the materials. There are so many more products that are starting to go through cradle-to-cradle certification. And companies are being a lot more open about what’s in the materials they’re selling and how they’re manufactured.

Sloss: With all of our visual displays, we print a lot of paper products. We’ve got a major effort right now to eliminate that and do more digitally using technology, like cross-branding with projection or LED technology. The more we can get that integrated into the store, the more we can simplify everything from the amount of paper we produce to the number of people and hours it takes to change all these out.

Taylor: We’re finding local zoning and planning departments are now adopting some of the standards that were put into place by the U.S. Green Building Council. In California, there’s a lot of driving pieces that are moving in that direction. I think green will become
part of the norm, as opposed to the exception.

Green Design Roundtable Panelists

Lori Kolthoff, creative managing director, resource design, FRCH Design Worldwide
Jim Sloss, vp, design|SPACE, Macy’s Inc.
Todd Taylor, director of design, Darden Restaurants
Rachel Zsembery, senior associate, Bergmeyer Associates Inc.



MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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