Kirsty Máté (left) and Fiona Calvert. Image: Nick Tantaro

3 July 2014 — A week-long experiment carried out in Launceston last month has demonstrated a range of ways retail can become more sustainable and better meet people’s needs for engagement and interaction.

Program director of Interior Design at the University of Tasmania Kirsty Máté set up the pop up shopfront ByeBuy! with a group of volunteers, running four programs that provided goods and services without any money changing hands.

Carried out under the Reactivate Launceston initiative, the project was part of Ms Máté’s PhD research, which aims to explore what retail might look like in a lower carbon, more sustainable and less consumption-focused future.

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The programs carried out included a swap shop, which allowed people to exchange items they no longer wanted or needed, with the added embellishment of each donor providing a written story of the item. There was also a story exchange, with people swapping tales real and imagined; a repair deli, involving the sharing of expertise in repairing items; and a slow market, where people either made their own products by upcyling old items in a workshop setting or ordered items for future purchase from local artisans.

Ms Máté told The FIfth Estate the shop attracted over 300 people and that the feedback has been the majority of them want to keep it going.

“The aim was to show that retail could be socially engaging and less about consuming,” she said.

“The workshops and the story exchange really enhanced that.”

The fitout of the store was also focused on sustainability, with elements including light fittings made from 1600 plastic cups collected from a Launceston race track, boxes someone had used for moving house, and a donation of waste gold foil from a printer that otherwise would have been sent to landfill.

Ms Máté said the way people responded to the fitout showed that the “glitz and glamour” associated with many fashion stores is actually unnecessary, and according to some people she spoke with, can actually make some people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Among the people who came to the store were many, she said, who would normally be going into high end stores, and a substantial proportion of young parents, who responded positively to the social engagement aspects of the space.

“There was a ‘slow’ aspect to it. People didn’t feel they had to be pushed along, which is what retail should be about. Retail should be about diversification.

“At the moment in retail we are providing people with a very superficial experience. We provided genuine engagement, and also people saw how they can make an impact in terms of reducing consumption.”

Goods swapped included clothes, household items, records, electronic equipment and books.

“A lot of research previous to this led to the pop up shop. I started with the question, if we are headed for a sustainable future then consumption is probably the root of all evil in terms of waste and energy, so how do we need to change what retail will look like?” Ms Máté said.

She said the shifting paradigms her research had identified around sustainability and consumerism include community consumerism, social engagement, ethical consumption and pro-sumption, where users produce their own goods.

In terms of applying the results more broadly, Ms Máté said the changes to mainstream retail could be incremental.

“The most obvious is providing social engagement. People want to linger, especially young parents. They want to be able to stay in a cafe and chat without feeling pushed to leave. Many mums and dads said ByeBuy! was a place they felt comfortable and could talk to other adults while the kids sleep or play.

“That is something retail could look at, so it is not just about the sale, it’s about the people.”

Ms Máté said there are also opportunities to improve sustainability through retailers integrating the repair aspect within the store, and through the development of small brick and mortar shop fronts for online merchandise, which enable people to try things on, place an order and then return to collect the item.

There are also basic shifts, such as the movement in fashion retail being spearheaded by UK-based sustainability fashion consultant Kate Fletcher, who promotes the idea that fashion should be designed so garments can be changed to suit new fashions, rather than the current “churn” style of constantly replacing whole wardrobes each season.

“Retail doesn’t have to be how we have it today,” Ms Máté said.

ByeBuy! was sustainable to the very end of its week-long existence, with the lights, fitout and leftover stock finding good homes. Ms Máté said the total waste amounted to one garbage bag full – half of which was recyclable.

The next step for Ms Máté and the project team is to develop a financial model that will allow the ByeBuy! concept to continue beyond the initial research project.

One reply on “Cash-free retail project shows shoppers value sustainability and social engagement”

  1. Awesome story and project. Retail does not have to be the way it currently is and will not be that way for too long if great ideas keep coming like these. Community was at the heart of all original ‘trading’ and can and should be again. Bravo!

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