Materials such as bamboo flooring and better lighting can have a green impact in fashion retailing

3 July 2014 — A new  initiative launching this month will help retailers overcome the time pressures and business as usual mindset that can form a barrier to sustainable practice, according to the National Retail Association’s retail sustainability project manager Daile Kelleher.

The Retail Buys the Future sustainability initiative will launch this month with the first of a series of workshops conducted by the NRA.

The move follows recent analysis by Caroline Noller’s The Footprint Company, which showed that big banks, fast food operations and up-market fashion retailers were some of the worst environmental performers.

Ms Kelleher told The Fifth Estate that for many small and medium retailers, energy use was often thought about then pushed to one side due to time constraints, and because of a general perception that energy bills cannot be easily and effectively addressed.

“There are people in retail who are really passionate about sustainability, and don’t know where to start, and there are the people who haven’t really thought about it, but once they realise ‘this will save you money’ they want to find out how,” Ms Kelleher said.

The other issue, Ms Kelleher said, is the challenge of gathering data and benchmarking sustainability for the sector.

“If we give people benchmarks to measure their performance against, it is motivating, because everyone likes a bit of competition, especially retailers,” she said.

The NRA project aims to bridge the information gap and make it easier for businesses to start down the path to improved sustainability through workshops, an online “Retail Health Check” greenhouse gas calculator, and other tools and resources. These will be going live via a website this month in conjunction with the first national round of workshops.

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Daile Kelleher

“Electricity bills are continuing to rise and have become one of the top expenses for retailers along with wages, product and rent,” Ms Kelleher said.

“Energy efficiency is now a must have for retailers as both customer and legislative demands tighten.

“It is the small wins people start to make in terms of energy efficiency and its cost benefits that will generate enthusiasm to proceed further with sustainability measures.”

How to reduce retail footprints

Recent analysis by The Footprint Company of retail tenancy footprints has uncovered some key ways energy footprints can be reduced across market sectors, including in fashion, food and electrical retailing.

Food retailers

Food retailers can lower the embodied energy of their fitout footprint through materials choices, The Footprint Company founder Dr Caroline Noller said. Some of these more sustainable choices, such as linoleum, also have the added benefit of being easier to change and cheaper in terms of up-front costs than stainless steel and vitrified ceramic tiles. Unlike vinyls, linoleum is also made from renewable materials and is recyclable.

Dr Noller said what also really needs addressing is equipment and how it is used.

“Sandwich presses for example are generally switched on in the morning and left on all day, and the operational energy cost of that is the same as buying a new one every year,” she said. “I tell people, ‘Do you realise you need to sell ten sandwiches just to cover the energy cost each day?’

“Coffee machines use around $3000 to $4000 a year in energy. They are mostly turned on when they are installed and never switched off. There is a myth taught to baristas that it is bad for them to switch them off. But just by installing a timer to switch them off overnight substantial amounts of energy can be saved.

“It’s the same with drink fridges. They can be switched off overnight if they are filled with non-perishable drinks and turned on again in the morning, and the drinks will still be cold and you’ve reduced energy use.”

Dr Noller’s The Footprint Company has carried out a major project for GPT, assessing all the retail tenancies across the GPT retail centre portfolio. During dialogues with GPT about the footprint of food retailers, the idea was raised that because these retailers have a high social value, it should be okay for them to have a large footprint.

However, with increasing numbers of people eating out, and more shopping centres expanding the gross lettable area dedicated to food retailers, Dr Noller said being sustainable was absolutely necessary from the One Planet perspective.

She said The Footprint Company plans to do finer grain analysis where it will compare different styles of operation, including comparing small local cafes to the franchise operations.

Electrical stores

Dr Noller said the main area of opportunity for electrical retailers was to manage the energy creep of devices. To optimise the efficiency of their operations, retailers should be ensuring devices are not left on overnight.

Fashion retail

A growing trend towards more authentic forms of interiors in some fashion stores, such as the use of bamboo finishes and less “extras” was recommended. This would give those retailers a much smaller footprint compared with high end, high-finish stores.

Areas where fashion retailers have made real sustainability gains include the use of energy-efficient lighting, although Dr Noller said in some stores this has been counterbalanced by the introduction of digital TV screens and digital billboards.

The challenge, she said, is how to do fittings in a more efficient way, and how to keep the store’s look refreshed and current without creating a substantial footprint, especially given this sector generally changes its interiors every three to four years.

For all retailers, the footprinting analysis showed that right sizing of space, making thoughtful and restrained choices in fitout and ensuring electrical items are only on when they are actually needed are three areas where substantial savings can be made in energy footprints and therefore energy costs.