From responsibly sourced materials to in-store recycling schemes, stores offer brands and retailers the opportunity to make their environmental efforts concrete.
Consumers are investing in sustainable living more than ever before, from the clothes they wear to the way they shop. Fashion retailers are responding by adopting a multi-faceted approach to make not just their clothes, but the stores in which they are sold more eco-friendly.
Drapers asks experts at four top retail design agencies – Adele DiGiacomo, materials specialist at HMKM; Caroline Mitchell, senior insights researcher at Checkland Kindleysides; David Dalziel, creative director at Dalziel & Pow; and Doug Barber, managing director of Barber Design – for their core building blocks of sustainable bricks-and-mortar shopping.
Reconsidering the retail environment
“There is a growing conflict between consumers’ desire to shop and to sustain themselves and the planet,” says HMKM’s DiGiacomo.
Consumers’ growing interest in the environment has led retailers to examine their sustainable practices throughout their operations, and stores are no exception to this scrutiny.
“Retailers are having to think beyond product sustainability and apply their thinking to all aspects of the consumer journey – right down to the spaces where they access and engage with products,” says Checkland Kindleysides’ Mitchell. “Although the industry is still lagging behind consumer expectations, businesses are starting to recognise the opportunity that the shop floor presents when it comes to showcasing their environmental efforts.”
Stella McCartney, for example, has long been challenging consumers’ and retailers’ ideas of what a retail environment should look like. By shunning traditional high-end materials for handmade, organic and sustainably sourced elements, the eponymous designer has transformed the notion of luxury fashion.
Alongside locally sourced furniture, renewable energy and Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, the brand’s Old Bond Street shop in London also features an Airlabs air purifier system that cleans the air using nanocarbon technology. The brand says the store is “staying true to our commitment to sustainability and innovation”.
“Retailers’ efforts are, however, entirely dependent on their own individual aspirations,” says Mitchell. “While some brands long to create a fully sustainable store, others have more specific requests, such as eliminating plastic or only using locally sourced materials.
“It ultimately comes down to their standpoint, how progressive their sustainability values and expectations are, and their budgets.”
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Experimenting with materials
There is a growing focus on the selection of materials, and how they can be re-used in store design.
Dalziel & Pow’s Dalziel says the agency is “more careful than ever” to reflect a client’s core values in its material specifications. This has included finding porcelain floors that were up to 40% recycled, 100% recycled marble cladding and even the use of recycled yoghurt cartons.
Barber Design has noted an increase in demand for ethical and sustainable materials, says Doug Barber: “Our clients in general are asking for more and more ethical and sustainable materials, from reclaimed timber to LED lighting to [living] green walls. They want to know that materials are produced in sustainable and energy-efficient ways.”
“Using waste as a resource is a key trend and significant work is being done to explore how today’s waste can become tomorrow’s functional materials,” Checkland Kindleysides’ Mitchell adds. “Not only does this make sense economically, but it can create a rich narrative and result in an ‘ownable’ design signature.”
As a result, more and more retailers are demanding sustainable packaging, “clean” materials and disclosure. HMKM’s DiGiacomo says this helps to reduce customers’ sense of guilt and helps them feel like they are reducing their impact.
Mitchell cites Danish womenswear brand Ganni’s London store as an example: its accessories are presented on plinths and trays made from recycled plastic waste and pressed fabrics, while rugs made from upcycled fabric from previous Ganni collections are embedded into the décor. It has also launched an in-store “take back” scheme, to encourage customers to donate unwanted clothing and shoes.
DiGiacomo adds that lesser-known materials also offer retailers the chance to tell an interesting story and connect with consumers over their shared interest in sustainability: “Unusual materials, such as those grown from mycelium or algae, are also becoming increasingly popular. By delving into the material’s origin, explaining the problem it solves and relaying an exciting story to customers, retailers can put an innovative spin on sustainability and make the movement more appealing.”
Checkland Kindleysides’ client, “facial workout” company FaceGym, has done this by installing countertops made from recycled yoghurt pots at its three London stores, as well as in its concessions in Selfridges in Manchester and London. The Nike Live store in New York, meanwhile, features terrazzo flooring made from multicoloured remnants of its recycled footwear. In luxury brand Gabriela Hearst’s new London store,, the furniture is made from a tree that fell in a storm, and the parquet floor uses wood reclaimed from a demolished army barracks.
The linear manufacturing model of “make, use, discard” is no longer acceptable, and “retailers must play an active role in encouraging and educating consumers in circularity”, says HMKM’s DiGiacomo. Nonetheless, sustainable fashion campaign #LoveNotLandfill estimates that 11 million items of clothing go to landfill every week in the UK.
Checkland Kindleysides’ Mitchell says brands such as Zara and Marks & Spencer are acknowledging these “eye-raising statistics”, and are encouraging conscious-consumption behaviours in store through their own recycling programmes: “As consumers protest against a ‘throwaway’ culture and needless waste, care and repair services are also gaining momentum.
“Fashion retailers are responding by offering post-purchase services such as repair clinics, cleaning boutiques and educational care guides as part of their core value proposition, enabling them to strengthen relationships and foster deeper connections with a new generation of eco-consumers. H&M is a good example of this. It has a dedicated ‘Take Care’ space in its Hammersmith store and Paris flagship [pictured top].” Take Care is H&M’s programme to provide tips “on how to repair, remake and refresh your clothes to make them last longer”.
But retailers must also adopt a circular mindset of their own, and go beyond encouraging and enabling customers to recycle and repair clothing. They should accept that their business and activities form part of a wider, more holistic ecosystem.
Barber says key ways of doing this include minimising a store’s carbon footprint, using natural materials and recycling materials into other products where possible: “Customers are changing their shopping habits, and will steer away from brands that are not adopting sustainable practices. Retailers need to sit up and take note: successful businesses will be those that incorporate sustainability into their environments.”