Low carbon retail design.
What’s that?

John Caswell

Sustainability Champion

With global temperatures rising faster than ever due to human-induced warming, it’s more important now than ever before that we start to understand, measure and rapidly reduce the environmental impact of the built environments we create.

One of the best methods to measure greenhouse gas emissions (that directly contribute to global warming) is to measure carbon dioxide along with other gasses (methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases) emitted during the production of an item or activity. To avoid confusion all these emissions are usually expressed in terms of a carbon dioxide equivalent or CO2e.

So how can we start to apply this to retail design? Well, first we need to understand every lifecycle stage of a retail design project (see diagram). Understanding this gives us set stages where we can start to measure emissions, look at ways to reduce them, potentially offset them and ultimately reach a goal of carbon neutrality.

Let’s start with stages 1-2 (raw material extraction and material processing). As designers we think about materials all the time. Woods, metals, plastics, glass, stone, they can all be traced back to the earth’s natural resources. But how bad are certain materials? Well, the best way to tell (from purely an emissions point of view) is to look at the materials embodied carbon. This is the carbon footprint involved in extracting, processing and turning the material from its raw state into useable material goods. Some energy intensive materials have high embodied carbon (e.g. Aluminium) while others are relatively low (e.g. Softwood). Understanding this is key to making low carbon choices from the start.

It’s also important to note that a material can be low carbon but difficult to recycle (e.g. MDF) or high carbon but easily recycled (e.g. Steel). Weighing up these two factors to make the most sustainable choice overall is very much dependant on how the material needs to be used.

Next we need to look at where everything is coming from and going (stages 3,5,7). Reducing transportation at every stage of a projects lifecycle is key to reducing its impact. Sourcing materials that are local to you or your manufacturers is an easy way to reduce emissions. It’s also important to consider the transportation between manufacturers and delivery to site.

If you’re not thinking about where something will end up, you’re not thinking sustainably.

During manufacture (stage 4) there are many ways you can reduce a project’s impact. This could be through economical use of materials (the most sustainable material being no material at all) and clever design. Reducing energy-intensive manufacturing methods not only reduces emissions, but it can also bring down costs and speed up production.

Good design is also key to assembly and packaging (stage 6). Flat packed designs that use minimal materials take up less space when being transported, resulting in fewer costs and fewer emissions.

The in-use emissions (stage 8) is the area most people think of when they consider a carbon footprint, but it only really makes up a small part of the full lifecycle (given the average time retail environments change). This stage should take into consideration any energy consumption from heating and lighting, along with anything else that could contribute towards the day to day emissions. The impact of this is very dependent on project size and type.

Finally, the time will come for any retail space to change. This is where designs that have been well made can be re-used or easily broken down into their raw materials to ensure they can be re-purposed or fully recycled. Different materials glued together are harder to recycle so its important to try and avoid this whenever possible. End of life needs to be considered right at the start of every design. If you’re not thinking about where something will end up, you’re not thinking sustainably.

At Double, we are now measuring projects material impacts (embodied CO2e), transportation emissions (CO2e emissions) and overall material recyclability. Whenever there is a lifecycle stage that we are not able to currently measure we consider our Sustainable Design Principles. Over time as we start to understand where our biggest impacts are, we can start to make better sustainable decisions, reduce our emissions and ensure full material recyclability. Which is something everyone who works within the production of goods needs to do.

Can I have some more?

How do you provide a really great retail experience every time? Focus on the staff.

As retail designers, we are often drawn to consistent patterns in creating new store designs, formats, and experiences. We naturally focus on finding the right material palette to communicate the brand and its values...

Defining the enemy to drive your purpose.

In reading David Hieatt’s book “Do: Purpose” recently - a quick read that I highly recommend – its initial pages talk about setting out your brand purpose...