Eco-Conscious Retail: It’s Easier Than You Think!



From rugs to rings, creating a sustainable retail space takes dedication—but the selection of eco-conscious goods is wider than ever

You recycle your junk mail, read the newspaper online, and use a refillable water bottle. But what about your store? The hottest color today seems to be green—as in do-gooder, environmentally friendly green.

As eco-friendly initiatives go mainstream, green elements are becoming more visible in retail environments. “We always say that our store is green from floor to ceiling,” says Lindsay Daunell, a co-owner of D&H Sustainable Jewelers in San Francisco. “In the way we initially did our build-out and with more recent store improvements, we always keep sustainability in mind.”

Keith Kovar, a principal at retail design firm GRID/3 International in New York City, says more clients today are asking how to incorporate sustainable items into their stores. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) program is a good place to start for guidelines about what makes a building and the components in it green.

In cases where finding a green alternative is difficult, Kovar says to buy the highest quality you can afford—after all, consigning stuff to a landfill is one of the least green moves you can make. “A lot of sustainability is looking at life cycle.”

For advice on how to create a sustainable store, JCK spoke to the experts:

Lighting and displays

Lindsay Daunell and Shawn Higgins, co-owners of D&H Sustainable Jewelers

LEDs are a favorite of eco-minded retailers because they use less energy and last much longer than their halogen counterparts—and are now available in warmer tones. The downside is that LEDs are pricier, although costs have dropped in recent years, so the upfront investment can turn into savings over the life of the bulb.

“Much less heat equals much less air conditioning,” points out Beth Bond, the Decatur, Ga.–based, self-described curator of sustainable news at her website, SoutheastGreen.com. Not only do you save money, but you help out the planet, too.

Displays can be trickier to source sustainably. “We used all bamboo for paneling and custom-built jewelry cases in a recent remodel,” Daunell says. She adds that although sustainable options aren’t necessarily more expensive than their conventional counterparts, it can take more legwork and time to find them.

If you’re a DIY type, Bond says you should consider “upcycling” wooden pallets into display cases. “There’s so much waste in wood pallets,” she says. Not into carpentry? Bond suggests seeking out a business that salvages fixtures, furniture, and other items from commercial buildings.

Floors and walls

“Another area where there are a lot of options is flooring,” Kovar says. Non-carpet options include bamboo and cork. Increasingly, Kovar says, jewelers are choosing carpet tiles, which are pricier than standard carpeting but can be installed without the amount of downtime and waste that cutting around display cases would entail. The other advantage of carpet tiles is that worn tiles can be replaced (perhaps by squares behind the counter, Kovar suggests, so there won’t be a glaring mismatch between the new tiles and slightly worn ones around them).

The interior of D&H’s San Francisco store

Green experts say brands like Mohawk and Interface are friendly to both the earth and the wallet. “The carpet industry has come a long way, because they were one of the worst when it came to putting stuff into landfills,” Kovar says. For your walls, experts advise using low- or no-VOC paint. The acronym stands for “volatile organic compounds.” These are the fumes that give you a headache if you try to live or work in a freshly painted room before the smell dissipates.

Bond says these environmentally friendlier paints—which are available at big-box hardware stores—can be 10 to 20 percent more expensive than conventional ones, but there’s a clear benefit, she points out. “It’s a productivity issue—you don’t have to close your store for a week.”

Marketing and promotional materials

“When it comes to printing and bags, think high recycled-paper content,” Bond says. “Avoid plastic bags at all costs,” including plastic-bagging your catalogs, she says.

Rings in 14k reclaimed white gold with ethically sourced diamonds; $845–$1,835; Rebecca Overmann, San Francisco; 415-505-7043; rebeccaovermann.com

Direct mail is another eco-culprit. “Think about your papers and coatings,” Bond says. “Everyone loves those glossy postcards, but they’re not so easy to recycle.” Send uncoated material, or consider going paperless, she says.  

For signage,  rely on reusable—like a picture frame with inserts that can be swapped out (and recycled) seasonally. “Try at all costs not to do one-offs,” she advises. “Laminated board can’t be recycled.”

Gift bags are another area you can’t neglect. “Retailers need to ask what materials the bags are made from,” says Denise Taschereau, cofounder and CEO of Vancouver, British Columbia–based Fairware. “PVC is hard to recycle and doesn’t have a great profile in terms of environmental health.” Go for recycled and recyclable plastic or organic cotton—and check with your supplier to make sure the bags weren’t produced under sweatshop conditions.

Designing a gift bag so it can be repurposed, rather than tossed, is also important. Order jewelry bags in a useful size or have them made from a soft buffing cloth, for instance.

Taschereau says some of her company’s popular products are seeded paper hang tags that can be planted in a garden or window box, USB drives made out of recycled wood pallets and loaded with retailer catalogs and video vignettes, and travel mugs and pens produced from recycled soda bottles or reclaimed wood.

While some of these options might be more expensive than a logoed ballpoint pen, Taschereau argues that a luxury retailer shouldn’t connect its brand with cheap throwaways, anyway. “You want to get away from the idea of a tchotchke, because it’s just going to wind up in a landfill.”

Merchandise

This is where pursuing a story of sustainability gets tricky.

Most major brands say they only buy diamonds from sources that conform to the multinational Kimberley Process, but detractors say the system is vulnerable to exploitation such as smuggling and laundering. The initiative also is limited; it doesn’t touch on issues such as abuse of diamond workers or dangerous working conditions.

14k EcoGold collection with diamonds; $935–$7,300; Toby Pomeroy, Corvallis, Ore.; 800-381-8787; tobypomeroy.com

Some suppliers and designers pitch recycled or “post-consumer” metals and stones to keep themselves above the fray. Jana Hadany, vice president of marketing at Avilan Diamonds in Scottsdale, Ariz., says the company only buys and sells used diamonds. Last year, Avilan launched a new initiative called Sustainable in Style, pairing its stones with eco-conscious designs by manufacturers like Rebecca Overmann and Toby Pomeroy.

There are a few questions retailers can ask their vendors, says Sarah Graham, a San Francisco–based designer who uses recycled gold and conflict-free stones. “If they’re bringing forward newly mined gold, how is it being mined?”

For now, at least, a commitment to selling sustainable jewelry requires asking questions, digging into the details of your suppliers’ supply chains, and embracing the notion of “community” as a kind of litmus test to help make decisions. Says Daunell: “We always ask ourselves, How does selling this piece of jewelry impact our direct and larger communities? Who is affected?”