September 11, 2019 /Industry

Sustainable Discussions with Alex Hirsch

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Brands are scrambling to keep up the enduring desire for a sustainable future – and for good reason, consumers are advocating for eco-friendly practices all over the world. While it may be a sudden change for some, many emerging brands have been establishing, basing their ethos and values around sustainability.

As an agency, we are huge advocates for retail embracing green practices and Freddie Sheridan recently spoke to Alex Hirsch, Retail Design Manager at Westfield about how brands, consumers and agencies alike can implement and promote sustainable practices.

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Sustainability is definitely at the forefront of consumers’ minds but, in a retail context, where does the responsibility lie to ensure that it’s addressed? Do you think it should lie with the brand, with creative agencies, or with the store groups to really be pushing the sustainability narrative?

“I think, ultimately, the responsibility needs to come from the brand. Once a brand has formed a specific set of core values that speak to sustainability, or, adopted a new philosophy that brings sustainability into their practices, only then can they begin to address it. Once a brand has adopted this philosophy into its bylaws, then can it begin to seek out partners who can help them address the growing concerns around retail design and sustainability. That’s where the agency comes in.

Agencies have the bandwidth and the resources to continuously be searching for the newest innovations in technology and science, whereas brands tend to be, through no fault of their own, in a bit of a silo when it comes to looking outside of the walls of their own construct. Agencies can be a guiding hand to provide alternate suggestions in the way of materials, tech, storytelling and ultimately looking at how best to share specific information around sustainability with an existing customer base.”

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We know that Gen Z and Gen Alpha are big advocates for creating a sustainable future. With an emerging culture of activism, how do you think this will affect their shopping habits in the future?

“We have already begun to see this effect of Gen Z in fast fashion and luxury industries. Fast fashion retail giants H&M and Zara, according to CNBC, have seen a 10% decrease in sales and a 7% increase in sales (though analysts are sceptical), respectively. Both brands have developed “eco” lines, touting organic cotton and natural dyes. Zara has gone a step ahead and announced it’s going to be made entirely of sustainable fabrics by 2025.

Now for luxury, Gen Z is only going to magnify the trends; they are more conscious than ever about brands who promote social responsibility. According to Forbes, ‘62% of true-luxury consumers chose to do business with a brand who supports sustainability over one that does not’.

The second-hand market, which is currently tracking at about $24 million annually, is expected to shoot up to $64 million by 2028, according to CNBC. Luxury brands, similar to what we’ve seen Prada most recently announce, are going to have to start finding alternative ways of producing their pricey garbs if they expect Gen Z to follow suit.”

Serena Confalonieri creates pieces from recycled offcuts of Tiffany lamps.

So do you think customers can differentiate between brands who are checking boxes and those who genuinely have sustainability built into their brand values?

“This is a great question – something I struggle with myself. It often seems that as a result of today’s advertising styles, where every website, subway ad or Instagram post tends to look and feel the same, I think it’s quite hard to truly tell who is real and who may not be as honest as they appear.

It takes a bit more research, but it’s worth doing some digging on brands’ websites to see what specific initiatives they’re posting about. On that note, I would say that many people have a different idea of sustainability – it has, in the consumers’ defence, become a bit of an all-encompassing word these days.

My perspective is two-fold. There’s the camp that preaches holistic sustainability [Patagonia], and there’s the camp that preaches ethics and transparency [Everlane]. Both camps are 100% doing their part, just tackling it from different angles.

Patagonia is a bit of a unicorn when it comes to how it approaches sustainability. Their distribution centre in Reno is LEED* gold, they incentivize employees to carpool by giving them daily subsidies, their cafeteria provides organic locally sourced meals, they have an amazing worn wear program whereby customers can send back used goods to be recycled, they incentivize employees to install solar panels in their homes… the list goes on. But, this type of holistic all-encompassing outlook very clearly speaks to my earlier comments around the need for brands to adopt the philosophy before diving into action items.

Everlane on the other hand, a brand I would consider to be sustainable, achieves this by pushing their involvement in creating and utilizing ethical factories. Taking a transparent and honest approach, they’ve established better conditions for workers, provided better pay, and ultimately created safer environments in countries that often do the exact opposite.”

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So which brands do you think are currently sustainable in retail well? In terms of their design, responsibility as a company and advocating the importance to consumers.

“So seeing as I already went on a bit of a love fest for Patagonia and Everlane I’ll leave them off the list below. For this exercise, I’m only listing brands that have a physical footprint and are doing their part to not only produce sustainable products but also finding ways to build out inefficient ways. Here goes…

  • Ganni –they source a lot of second-hand furniture for their lounge areas, make display podiums from a vendor who produces them from recycled plastics, create floor rugs from upcycled fabric remnants from their clothing, and now offer a clothing drop for unwanted clothes. They’re good about providing updates to their customer base as they continue to develop new forms of sustainability.
  • Reformation – needs no introduction. Reformation continues to be a huge advocate for not only sustainable clothing but also how that clothing is made. They release sustainability reports annually, highlight ways they are working to reduce their carbon footprint.
  • Adidas – is making great efforts to change the build out processes and operational processes within its flagship stores. By 2020, flagships (globally) are to be LEED-certified*, single-use plastic bags are to be removed, and carbon neutrality reached within their own operations. Partnering with equally sustainable brands, like Stella McCartney, is mutually beneficial in increasing awareness to two seemingly different customer bases, pushing for new and greater solutions.
  • Alternative Apparel – not only produce sustainable, organic, recyclable products but also does so in WRAP certified factories, which adhere to fair labour association guidelines. Their products are typically made of organic cotton, post-consumer recycled polyester and low impact dyes. Not only this, but they’re big advocates for eco-packaging.
  • Eileen Fisher – I love Eileen Fisher. She’s synonymous with the brand I remember my mother wearing as I was growing up. First and foremost, within their retail stores, they not only install LED lighting but offset 100% of their energy consumption (at their headquarters as well). The way they go about offsetting a partnership with NativeEnergy – a company who produces wind-powered renewable energy through turbines.
  • Allbirds – this darling of the start-up world is blowing up the shoe industry (in a positive way of course). They’ve got the whole package, sustainably designed and produced footwear, made specifically from wool, castor bean oil, recycled bottles and recycled cardboard. Then they’ve got their seriously aggressive goal of becoming carbon neutral by… 2019. Similar to Eileen Fisher, they’re purchasing credits in third parties who are verified emission reduction companies. Think, wind energy, planting trees, and capturing methane from landfills and livestock.


Other brands of note who either only have an online presence or have sustainable products but not (yet) a sustainable physical presence are: The Real Real, ThredUp, Poshmark, ForDays, Nudie Jeans, Doen, Christy Dawn, Sezane, Cuyana Anve Swim, Loop Store, Blueland, Who Gives a Crap, Smol, ByHumanKind, Tata Harper, Kjaer Weis, Seed.”

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Adidas x ByBorre's True Color is a sustainable design concept set to change the textile industry.

What tend to be the roadblocks that brands face when wanting to build environments sustainably?

“Price point and lack of knowledge surrounding alternative options.

Let’s take the example of construction, retail construction to be specific. Construction companies need to think outside the box of getting a store open as quickly as possible no matter the cost and consider that quick can be done at an environmentally friendly cost as well.

Really, the largest problem is this, the lack of knowledge of alternative options. So, General Contractors, when beginning demolition, a standard waste bin is ordered to the site and all building materials in the existing space are dumped. All of it ending up in a landfill, rather than thinking about how to reuse, recycle and repurpose materials.

With regards to the price point, architects and designers may not be aware of suitable “like” materials that don’t break the bank. A few examples are:

  • Epoxy terrazzo flooring. If you do a bit of research, you can find a supplier who has a product that is 100% solids epoxy with 0 VOC (volatile organic compounds). A product with 100% solids requires must less curing time ultimately saving labour costs. The VOC’s are evaporating solvents. Let’s just say, you want as low of a VOC as you can get. With regards to the terrazzo aggregate, the aggregate itself is made up of tiny chips of pre-existing marble, quartz, granite or glass. No need for producing additional materials for the aggregate – it already exists.
  • Denim insulation can be used instead of typical cellulose, fibreglass or foam. Companies like Blue Jeans Go Green offer incentives for brands like Madewell and Levi’s to take in old denim and send to their facility for recycling. They then partner with non-profit companies like Habitat for Humanity to provide insulation for construction. If your company doesn’t qualify for a grant to use Blue Jeans Go Green’s product, Bonded Logic sells through Home Depot to mass consumers. The price points are truly quite competitive depending on how large of a palette or how many bags you’re buying.
  • Vinyl and click-lock flooring are great alternatives to tile and hardwood. Tarkett and Cali Bamboo are two brands with sustainability initiatives and truly competitive price points. On top of that, both save labour costs as they are quite easy to install.”
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Tjeerd Veenhoven creates sustainable alternatives to leather from palm trees.

Is there anything that could be done at a government level to make facilitating sustainable environments more feasible for brands?

“The government, at least at a state level within the United States, has begun to pass carbon emission offset goals – a huge undertaking. New York State is pushing to achieve 80% less than what we saw in 1990, by the year 2050. The current road map puts forth stringent pollution guidelines for buildings that are 25,000 square feet or larger, creates a loan program for renewable energy upgrades, and potentially adds new rules that could make rooftop wind turbines more common.

How does this affect brands? Well, at least in the state of New York, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a retailer in a stand-alone building. Most are beneath office buildings, residential buildings, or within a mixed-use building such as a mall. Brands are quite honestly at the mercy of their landlord’s willingness to move forward with the times and adapt to the new regulations at hand.

Green building practices are roughly 5% more costly in terms of construction. Those initial costs may not be feasible for most brands in the city. However, brands can see a 20-50% reduction in utility bill costs almost instantaneously if renewable products and systems are installed (which relates back to my earlier notes on sustainable product alternatives).”

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Baux Acoustic Pulp is a biodegradable, biomimicking new kind of sound insulation.

In our experience, sustainability may be pushed to the side due to longer lead times and greater cost. How can we as an agency help to demonstrate the value of standing by the issue, even if it does mean it takes longer or cost more to source materials?

“In today’s market and with the forthcoming statewide legislation, brands, developers and homeowners alike are going to essentially be forced to consider what has typically seen an alternative, as the main contender. With consumer expectations moving in the direction they are, brand perception needs to align with said expectations in order for brands to continue to grow.

Luckily, there are more sustainable options than ever before, and they are much easier to come by than say, five or so years ago. Manufacturing companies are working to facilitate sustainable product lines in addition to their mass lines and prices are becoming more competitive.

On top of that, with the second-hand industry growing at the pace it is, I would not be surprised if, like fashion, more second-hand furniture and fixtures made their way into the retail design industry. Construction costs may feel like an inhibitor, but not when you look at the value add of what your offset will be once the final product is complete.

The work it takes to gain the knowledge of, and the understanding of how today’s cultural implications affect retail design is something agencies do; having an acute awareness of ever-changing code requirements, legislative impacts to construction, material knowledge and building processes. The value is in the group’s will to teach a brand new directions forward – and show that it’s not as daunting as it may seem.

At the end of the day, brands just need someone who is willing to put in the effort to show them the (green) light at the end of the tunnel – agencies like Sheridan&Co who are willing to put in that effort are where the value lies.”

*LEED-Certification: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is an internationally recognized green building certification system, providing third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance across all the metrics that matter.