Shop where it’s “green” - sustainable design in retail spaces

20 April 2023 by Valerie Lim
blog author

​Lights! Camera! Action!

These words spring to mind whenever I’m embarking on a retail therapy spree. Of course, while the only cameras around are security cameras, I see the lights and everyone in full (shopping) action. While many brands have transitioned to eCommerce over the years, brick-and-mortar remains at the heart of most retailers, with store design playing a key role in showcasing products and attracting consumers.

Considering the vast number of stores globally, it is critical that organisations explore ways to incorporate sustainable design into retail spaces to reduce energy usage, waste production and water consumption, while simultaneously creating a healthier, more pleasant shopping experience.

Sustainable design has become an increasingly important consideration in retail spaces as retailers seek to strike a balance between creating an attractive and efficient space for consumers and reducing their environmental impact. In addition to building stores within LEED-certified buildings, energy-efficient lighting, HVAC systems, use of sustainable materials, and reduced water consumption are currently the most common initiatives. However, potential challenges and drawbacks include:

1. Cost: Sustainable design features, such as energy-efficient lighting or biophilic elements (natural element exposure), may require an upfront investment potentially more expensive than traditional design approaches.

However, according to a post by Frasers Property, the cost of green fittings has been decreasing over the years and is now comparably priced to less sustainable versions.

2. Limited availability of sustainable materials: Retailers may struggle to source sustainable materials for store designs, leading to delays or compromises in the final design.

3. Trade-offs between sustainability and functionality: In some cases, there may be trade-offs between incorporating sustainable design features and achieving certain functional goals, such as maximizing shelf space or creating a particular ambiance, which requires creative solutions.

4. Lack of industry standards: Despite various certifications and standards relating to sustainable design and construction, these may not be widely recognised or adopted in the industry, making it challenging for retailers to evaluate and compare different options.

5. Limited customer interest: Even though sustainable design may be important to some customers, others may prioritise other factors, such as price or convenience. Retailers may need to balance their sustainability goals with their desire to appeal to a broader customer base.

With that said, these potential stumbling blocks can be mitigated by careful planning and design. By working with experienced designers and contractors, retailers can achieve sustainability goals and create a functional, more appealing shopping experience.

The impact of the pandemic

With many retail businesses forced to close or reduce operating hours during lockdowns, energy usage and waste production decreased in many retail spaces. Great for the environment, bad for businesses. However, with every dark cloud, there is a silver lining: businesses were forced to re-evaluate. The pandemic accelerated progress toward sustainable design in retail spaces as retailers seek to adapt to changing consumer preferences and behaviours while reducing their environmental impact.

One trend that emerged from the pandemic is the use of technology to create more sustainable and efficient retail spaces. For example, retailers are increasingly using smart sensors and data analytics to optimise energy usage and reduce waste. This can include everything from using occupancy sensors to control lighting and HVAC systems, to monitoring waste production and recycling rates.

Another trend in retail design is the increased use of sustainable materials and practices. As consumers become more conscious of environmental issues, retailers are stepping up and incorporating sustainable materials and practices into their retail spaces. This can include everything from recycled and renewable materials to green walls and living plant installations.

The pandemic also highlighted the importance of health and well-being in retail spaces. As consumers and employees become more conscious of the potential health risks of crowded and poorly ventilated spaces, retailers are investing in features such as natural lighting, improved air quality, and access to outdoor spaces.

Potential future trends

Sustainable design in retail spaces will continue to be an important trend in the coming years. This is likely to be driven by advances in technology, the increasing availability of sustainable materials and practices, and a continued focus on health and well-being. A few potential trends include:

·      Biophilic design: This incorporates natural elements, such as plants and water features, into interior spaces, which have been shown to have numerous health and well-being benefits, including stress reduction and improved cognitive function. A biophilic design could appeal to more consumers, helping to create a calming and inviting experience. A study by Kathleen L Wolf found that in addition to the amount of time spent, consumers are also willing to pay more for products sold in spaces with more natural elements.  

·      Energy-efficient lighting: While LED lighting has become increasingly popular in recent years, there are still opportunities to further optimise lighting efficiency. Retailers may look to incorporate advanced lighting controls, such as daylight sensors, to further reduce energy usage.

·      Modular and flexible design: As the retail industry continues to evolve and adapt to changing consumer behaviours, retailers may need to be more flexible in their store designs, allowing retailers to easily adapt stores to changing needs, while also reducing waste by reusing existing components.

·      Sustainable/ biodegradable materials: Sustainable materials are increasingly important, as consumers become more conscious of environmental issues. Retailers may look to incorporate materials made from recycled or renewable sources or those that can be easily recycled at the end of product life.

·      Circular design: Circular design seeks to eliminate waste by designing products and systems to be reused or recycled. This could involve using reusable packaging materials, designing products with end-of-life recyclability in mind, and creating closed-loop recycling systems.

According to a report by Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), sustainable design in retail spaces, or ‘green retail space’, is now becoming a standard. Green products have been shown to increase sales, and brands that have created experiential spaces have also had great success with green marketing strategies. There will always be a risk of greenwashing, but with the rising energy costs, shortages of raw materials, and the increasingly visible consequences of climate change, it is crucial for organisations to innovate. They need to devise ways to reinvent what “green retail” means and create a store concept that is engaging and environmentally friendly. While it is becoming a “norm”, we are simply at the beginning of an arduous journey. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the entire human race to save our planet.

Do you work in the green retail space? If you have innovations you’d like to share and examples of company best practices to help drive the climate agenda forward, I would love to hear from you.

Valerie joined Acre in 2022 as a Senior Consultant focusing on Sustainable Business and Advisory. She achieved her BSc in Psychology and MSc in Occupational and Business Psychology and upon graduation, joined a boutique executive search firm in London. Valerie decided to return to Singapore in 2018. She then joined Spencer Stuart and Korn Ferry, specialising in Executive Search across industries and functions globally.

Valerie is certified by SHL to deliver ability and personality assessments. She believes that by hiring and developing the best leaders in the industry, she can contribute towards achieving environmental, social and economic sustainability.