Design Tips For Sustainable Retail Displays

I get asked all the time, how can we make our retail displays more environmentally sustainable? It’s a rather open-ended question, as typically the display is just one piece of the puzzle. There aren’t any “silver bullets” or quick fixes that result in “Poof! Our display is ‘green’ and so are we”.  Real social and environmental responsibility needs to be evident throughout an organization. Typically the answer to sustainable retail displays starts with taking a good hard look at an organization’s mission vision and values.

So let’s assume your brand or organization does embrace a triple bottom line mindset, or worst case scenario you’re under the gun with a customer asking you to provide sustainable retail solutions for their stores. Here are some of my tips when it comes to making your retail displays more environmentally friendly.

1) Understand why sustainability is important and let your customers know you understand why.

In the old days you just had to worry about one bottom line: profit. Now there are all these people talking, and demanding, retail solutions that are socially and environmentally responsible resulting in the need to balance profit with people and the planet. Where do you start? We’re all busy and it’s overwhelming. Well the good news is it’s a lot easier to find information now than it was just a decade or two ago. There are a lot of people and organizations arriving at new responsible design solutions every day it seems. Do an online search, ask around, talk to someone who specializes in sustainable design solutions, read a book. My personal bible on sustainability is Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

“…think about the impact your brand is having on the world.”

Ultimately it comes down to the fact that we should leave the world as good, or better, than we found it. Our use of natural resources should not have an ill effect on us, our world and the children of all species, for all time. When it comes to retail, think about the impact your brand is having on the world. Are there ways to use materials that aren’t harmful or wasteful? What really is necessary to sell your product or attract consumers? Is everyone treated fairly within your supply chain? Don’t be afraid to have an open conversation with your customers, let them know what you’re doing and where you know you need to improve. Trust me, they will have the conversation with or without you, so better to be at the table. Also collaborate with your suppliers to embrace the same responsible mindset and action.

The best part is, solutions that are socially and environmentally responsible do not cost more in the long run when you factor in all the costs associated with bad design decisions.  They actually cost less. It’s just that the old ways of accounting value and impact are canted towards passing the burden onto others for bad design. With the transparency that consumers (and regulators) demand, it’s becoming more difficult to pass that burden downstream. Why not reap all the rewards of good design for your organization? Start talking to your customers, let them know who you are.

2) Do you need a display?

I alluded to it previously, and it’s a fairly straight forward question, but I doubt very much it is asked at the beginning of many retail display projects. Typically the only time displays don’t make it to retail is when marketing, retailers or finance departments see how much the displays cost. The most environmentally friendly display I can think of is the one that doesn’t exist. I know first hand: essentially everything I have ever designed as an industrial designer was destined for a landfill, for all intents and purposes. The “system” just isn’t set up to dispose of, repurpose or recycle retail displays. I’m assuming that’s not something your PR team tee’s up as a topic for a Super Bowl commercial.

Unless you can work with your team, your suppliers, and your retailers to control what happens to your display from cradle to grave, or preferably cradle to cradle, be aware that it may end up in a landfill. There are some things we can do though to make this scenario “less bad“, see below.

One last thought on the topic. Look, I’m a designer. I’d love to (need to?) design awesome displays and fixtures for the rest of my life, for every brand I can find. But we need to have the courage to challenge conventional thinking or at least say “why?” a couple of times before charging ahead with something “new“. Too often I’ve seen brands deploy retail displays, signs and fixtures in an effort to mask ill-conceived marketing or product endeavors. Consumers are savvy but they also know it’s ultimately about the product itself. Unless your retail solution is some how experientially enhancing the product or an open blank cardboard box on the floor, ask your self “Do we really need this display?” Don’t forget, that fancy packaging design you paid for…it should be doing the bulk of the work if you’re selling a commodity item by the way. Color and brand-language blocking are your friends.

3) Try a temporary display.

Okay, enough doom and gloom. Let’s design something! This may sound odd but you know what I’d recommend first and foremost for your “sustainable” display?

A corrugated temp display.

Why? Well first off every major retailer (I’ve visited or know of) has a baler in the back. Some stores even have a little note on their retail signs that says something is baler friendly.

Basically all corrugated material at retail gets recycled. So when you make your display out of corrugated guess what? You no longer have to worry about its end of life, the retailer handles that for you. When designing your display don’t include foreign materials like clips or metal bars that can’t be easily removed in under a minute by a store associate, otherwise your display will end up in the trash. You can include other fiber based materials like paper, board and even “honeycomb” board, as long as they don’t have plastic content. Typically recyclers only allow 2-5% foreign material for paper recycling. Source your material from FSC certified resources or from recycled content.

Being made from a renewable resource, Inexpensive tooling and various shipping advantages round out the pluses of temp displays. The craftsmanship, finishes and design possibilities for temp displays has risen quite a bit in the last two decades. I can’t think of a single brand, product or retailer that could not pull off using a temp display at retail.

4) You don’t need exotic materials.

When you get right down to it, there are about five materials that every display can be made out of: paper, plastic, wood, glass or metal. We covered paper above. None of these materials is intrinsically evil or perfect when it comes to sustainable displays.  Finding “new” materials is sexy during design meetings, but how a material is used typically has more environmental impact than the material itself.

In light of the fact that most brands and retailers set their displays and forget them, I like metal for permanent displays. The cost is reasonable, durability is good and the material itself has a high likelihood of being recovered and recycled. Even if a retailer throws out a metal display you can rest assured someone along the way towards the trash pile is going to pick the metal out for resale. Metal has intrinsic value in our society and as such it’s a good material choice. Weight is the primary downside, resulting in high fuel usage to ship.

Glass doesn’t get used too often, but it is an awesome material: it’s infinitely recyclable.

Wood is a great material too because it’s infinitely renewable. Just grow more trees. Buy from FSC suppliers to assure forests are managed properly. Most wood at retail though is in the form of MDF or particle board and is laminated. Sometimes the MDF is powder coated. None of this is really good for the environment, and these finishes sometimes render the material un-recyclable. Talk to your designer and suppliers. Try to specify renewable alternatives like wheat board, or Greenguard certified materials that don’t emit toxic chemicals. Using non-toxic materials also means better health for supply chain employees, as well as reduced need for regulation in your facilities to handle toxic materials, both of which save long-term costs. Weight and durability are issues as well.

“Think of it this way though, you’re investing in a material that is designed to last 500 years at the very least. You’re marketing team is going to change their mind in about 6 months.”

Lastly, plastic is a good material choice for retail displays in certain instances. I could write a whole article just on the pros and cons of plastics. Think of it this way though, you’re investing in a material that is designed to last 500 years at the very least. You’re marketing team is going to change their mind in about 6 months. Plus the tooling is expensive if you’re molding something. Realistically, unless your display is going to last at retail for five or more years, or you need a plastic part for some sort of utility enhancement, it’s not that great of a material. Light weight is one plus of plastic.

If you do use plastic, use only one type of plastic; preferably polyethylene or high-density polyethylene which are readily recycled. Regardless mark every plastic part with the type of plastic it is, so people downstream can recycle it if and when the time comes. Unless you’re taking the plastic display back at the end of its life, it is most likely going into a landfill.

Is that the legacy your brand stands for and wants to leave for future generations?

5) Take your displays back.

You invest all this time and money into raw materials, make displays, ship them out and then forget about them. This is how it’s always been. Well don’t be surprised if this changes in the not so distant future. Either through self implemented programs or through regulation, more brands are taking back the products they produce, when the product’s useful life has come to an end. Virtually every brand and retailer I’ve talked to bemoans the cost and logistics of a “take back” program, and they even state the added fuel usages to ship a heavy display back are environmentally unfriendly. These are all valid points, but that doesn’t change reality. Displays need to be designed with a cradle-to-cradle approach instead of the traditional “ship it and forget it” school of thought.

Displays should be designed to use minimal, like materials; no hybrid materials that can’t be reused or recycled. These displays should be easy to disassemble in a factory setting. If the retailer isn’t shipping them back (or the brand going out and harvesting them), then they or someone else downstream should be able to easily identify components and strip out valuable, reusable or recyclable materials for future uses.

If you are not going to take back the display then at least design it to be less of a burden downstream. If anything the raw materials you provided can be reborn into something new.

I hope these tips help you to at least start thinking about infusing sustainability into your next retail design. If there is anything my team and I can do to help your brand with retail design and sustainability please contact us. In the end, displays are not the product or service, they are a communication tool to inform, excite and prompt. They shouldn’t do more harm than good. Otherwise it might be better to just put out a blank cardboard box in the aisle and let guests pick through it.

Chris Weigand

President, Chris Weigand Design, LLC

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