Ethical and Sustainable Retail Design

22nd December 2019

It’s been another great year for Barber Design with exciting projects in progress and store openings around the globe. Looking back at our work this year, by far the biggest retail trend we’ve seen is the growing interest in ethical and sustainable retail design, with retailers making swift and impressive progress in response to public demand for more ethical practices.

A row of clothes in a shop

Brands have had to do more than ever this year to appear sustainable. But the big question is, is this because they want to – or because shoppers demand it? There is evidence that customers will steer away from brands that are not using sustainable practices so whatever their motives, retailers need to sit up and take notice and start planning ahead and developing effective sustainability strategies.

A coffee shop

Sustainable store designs

From a retail design perspective, we’ve noticed many more clients asking for more ethical and sustainable materials to be incorporated into their store designs.

This includes using green materials like reclaimed timber and LED lighting or enabling as much natural daylight as possible. ‘Green walls’ have certainly become very popular and they also help buildings become more energy efficient – with a decrease in carbon emissions. Some clients also choose to ensure that the materials used in their store design are being produced in sustainable and energy efficient ways.

Sustainable to the core

We believe that the sustainable practices should not just stop at packaging and bags for life (which are a relatively easy and visible fix), but run through the veins of the business from top to bottom.

Brands that are making sustainable changes should also make sure that they actively promote this message as part of their core values. It’s fantastic that clients are getting on board with sustainability but they also need to shout about it. Which in turn breeds customer loyalty.

Tips for achieving sustainable retail design

Sustainable packaging

Retailers need to remove as much plastic from their packaging as they possibly can. It is filling the oceans and destroying our planet. Devastating our eco systems and wildlife. This is a relatively easy fix and it is heartening to see how many retailers have already started banning bags and single use plastics in their stores.

Offsetting the carbon footprint

Consumers want retailers to help them lower their carbon footprint with items including reusable packaging. A great example of this is ‘Keep Cup’ who have developed a reusable coffee cup, and a host of retailers now offer discounts if you bring in your own cup to refill.

Using honest materials

Retailers should use or incorporate natural materials into their store designs as much as possible, with materials like wood, clay, stone, wool, lime, straw and coir (for matting). 

Used materials such as steel beams and concrete can also be recycled with great effect. We always try to work with the existing fabric of the building in our designs, turning beams and panels into features. Fortunately it is fashionable at the moment to expose and celebrate the structure of a building rather than hide it away. This works well with the green ethos and is something we embrace in our work.

You can also use recomposed materials, for example: marble can be recycled to create new materials, along with crushed glass. And reclaimed timber can be recycled to create block board or chipboard.

Sustainable brands that are leading the trend

Nike has a ‘reuse a shoe’ programme, turning old shoes into granules for clothing, footwear and sports grounds.

Northface have created an initiative called ‘Clothes the Loop’ which collects used clothing and gives discounts on old and unwanted products brought into store. The unwanted items are turned into a variety of products to give them a second life.

Starbucks are testing out new lids that eliminate straws, saving over one billion straws per year from entering the plastic waste environment.

Brands can also go paperless with receipts, use solar power, reduce packaging waste (come on Amazon!), encourage the return and recycling of old products and most of all look to engage and educate customers and give them the sustainable choices they now want and expect.

A sustainable future

Globally we are facing a growing population, resource shortages and climate change. Aware of these challenges, customers will have to respond to save the planet, and ultimately the human race.

Clothing will become treasured and passed down through the family.

We will see the rise of local producers supplying local shops, the big brands will suffer if they cannot be seen to be transparent and contribute towards climate change and sustainability.

People will become more socially connected and value local rather than global products. Some trends are starting to happen now, with the use of technology and apps we are able to care and share like never before!

We will question the need to own items and look to share goods such as high value products (cars and big ticket items). Excess food will be shared amongst those that have less, clothes will be shared (ski gear or wedding dresses perhaps?). Furniture will be rented and returned when the family unit changes age or size. Better quality products will be demanded, longer lasting and wearing so that they stand the test of time. People will pay more for quality but will want less.

Fashion will move from fast and cheap to seasonal clothes, wearable and storable. Repairs will become the norm (so retailers must ensure they offer the facility).

We are fast becoming the ‘experience economy’ where people prefer real life experiences to purchases. Customers are changing their shopping habits and retailers are having to adjust to their demands. As responsible designers we must incorporate sustainability into our environments work practices and also adapt to the changing shopping habits of customers.

Whilst the overall message is that we must become sustainable in our own purchases and only support those brands that are environmentally conscious, the bigger message is that we as designers (and retailers) must act now to save the planet before it is to late.

Is your brand doing anything to save the planet? Let us know in the comments section below.


  • Deniz @Bestmoeglich says:

    What an inspirational write up for the new retailers! Thank you for enlightening such an important issue for today’s world. In the current situation where we are experiencing so many changes in the environment, it’s high time we all should focus on the sustainable retail design, not only for keeping pace with our competitors, but also for the greater sake of the environment and mankind. Thank you for sharing some great tips for practicing sustainability with examples of what other brands are doing. You are absolutely right about incorporating sustainability into each and every level of a retail business from top to bottom, and not limiting it to packaging only.
    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

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