The Future of Sustainable Retail Design

The predominant takeaway from EuroShop 2023 is that the future of design is rooted in sustainability.
2023 Future of Sustainable Design Euro Shop web

Last month Bergmeyer Principal Mare Weiss and Senior Interior Design Catherine Keywan attended EuroShop 2023, the world's largest retail trade fair. Their main takeaway is that sustainability is no longer a trend; it's our permanent future.

Held every three years in Düsseldorf, Germany, EuroShop attracts exhibitors and visitors worldwide. This show is the place to see and hear what's in the future for retail design.

As designers, a constant goal for attending events like this is to be inspired by uncovering insights on future trends and show-stopping materials. Though we did discover some inspiring new products, the consistent message that stuck out the most at every booth, every session, and every conversation we had, was sustainability.

Web Euro Shop Future of Design Sustainability

Sustainable Design Includes Building Blocks to a Better Future

Some time ago, sustainable design for interior professionals was mainly focused on selecting interior finishes made of renewable materials or materials with recycled content. We progressed to system solutions involving energy consumption as we focused on energy-efficient lighting and mechanical systems that more significantly impacted our projects. Cut to present day, and there is no doubt we're revisiting interior finishes at a much deeper level. Unlike years before, we are considering the product's whole life cycle - from understanding the raw material composition to focusing on more efficient production (reducing waste & water usage during production), and establishing how the finishes and materials we specify can be deconstructed and reused at the product's end of life (reducing post-life waste).

There isn't one right or one wrong here though – because our sustainable future includes changes to all aspects of our industry including product, packaging, and store design. Today is about laying a new foundation for how we design systemically.

It's What's on the Inside That Matters

Does a finish or material need to look sustainable to be sustainable? Traditionally we are conditioned to look for recycled bits or solid wood as options to select from as finishes and materials for sustainable retail design. Yet these materials and textures infrequently align with a brand's visual essence. Does every store need raw steel, solid wood, and recycled plastic surfaces to be seen as sustainable? Maybe or maybe not, but the conversations we have now need to be more focused on what these materials are made up of from the inside as what matters most.

Take wood-look paneling, for example. On the outside, it's a thin but durable melamine sheet with a beautifully textured wood look. Yet on the inside, a new MDF (medium-density fiberboard) is made of wood pulp and water-soluble glues. This special MDF can be deconstructed post-consumer, turned back into wood pulp, and reused in another fabrication. The volume of MDF vs. the melamine makes the core of the finish the most critical aspect of its sustainability.

Another example is recycled cardboard substrate wrapped in color, metal-look, or laminate-look, allowing the exterior appearance to align with the brand's identity. The inside, however, contains a substantially better product for the environment. With seamless edges and a suitable covering, it's impossible to tell it's made from recycled cardboard, and yet this small change in material is not so small in its impact on helping save our planet.

Consideration of material composition is successfully being applied to designing areas such as temporary window displays in luxury stores and more short-term permanent fixtures in retail store environments.

Sustainability is Not One Size Fits All

To have a sustainable future, we must look to make massive reductions in waste, energy, CO2, and water, all while increasing the use of recycled and non-toxic materials in finishes and thoughtfully engineering products to be disassembled for recycling or reuse.

It's overwhelming and nearly impossible to impact all sustainable goals simultaneously, so designers should consider what could make the most significant impact on a project and start by changing that.

To give you a better picture, permanent structures like stores use a significant amount of energy during their lifespan, meaning changes should be made to the lighting or HVAC systems to make the most impactful improvements. On the other hand, promotional displays and temporary structures with a shorter shelf-life should focus on manufacturing, material content, recyclability, and reuse.

Collaboration is Key

Collaboration is the key to success for brands to meet their sustainability goals. If a retailer can determine which sustainability goals best align with their values early, that will allow designers, fabricators, and contractors the time and ability to work together throughout the design and construction/manufacturing process to discover efficiencies and share knowledge more openly.

Walking the trade show floor with a fixture manufacturer representative opened our eyes to how they looked at materials and fabrication processes differently and demonstrated how a collaborative conversation is the most efficient path to success. This partnership is crucial to moving us forward in designing and fabricating sustainably.

Sustainability = Making Things Easier

One aspect of sustainability often overlooked is the simplicity of making things easier. Improving a product's packaging can equate to more products fitting in one box. The improvement equals fewer boxes needed to ship and less space required per item in transportation. Fewer trucks equal fewer CO2 emissions.

Knock-down fixtures, finishes, and interior construction are easy to assemble on-site and allow for disassembly at the end of life. If pieces fit together without glue, it increases the likelihood they can be deconstructed and reused. And sustainable construction and packaging should not have to hinder the design either. Take global retailer ALDO, which made its packaging easier while mindfully bettering our earth by updating its shoeboxes to include handles, making a shopping bag completely unnecessary after purchase.

The Takeaway

Designing for sustainability is about breaking habits.

And the more we practice transparency in knowledge-sharing with industry peers – even if we've yet to get it right – about what we are doing to make a more sustainable world for tomorrow, the more we will learn from each other, inspiring others to catch on to the changes.

Move beyond how you've always done things and think differently. The ways of the past aren't always the best, and we’re learning that all too well now. Look towards your partners and industry peers as resources for moving forward in the sustainable design direction.

We are all in this together because there is no planet B.