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.