Designing sustainability into retail display

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It is tempting to assume that the focus on sustainability in the retail sector may have faded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

True, the retail business climate for many retailers has been harsher than at any time in history.

Yet the issues with the global climate, and in particular the climate emergency have not gone away. For many global businesses, brands, retailers – and, crucially, consumers – the COVID pandemic has cemented a full acceptance of the reality and scale of human-driven climate change.

For many, it has also brought a consequent commitment to taking climate action.

The real climate emergency

The scale and impact of climate change is highlighted in some extremely worrying statistics:

  • The concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere – at 416 parts per million – is the highest it has been in all human history
  • The five warmest years between 1880 and 2019 all took place after 2015
  • 800 million people – 11% of the world’s population – are currently vulnerable to the direct impact of climate change in the form of droughts, floods, heat waves, extreme weather events and rising sea levels.
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A global response

The global response to this emergency was enshrined in point 13 of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), and is one of 17 SDGs aimed at dealing with global issues.

Number 13 was summarised as ‘Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’ and it led, among other things, to the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 by 196 governments.

Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (preferably 1.5 degrees) compared to pre-industrial levels.

In the UK, this commitment took the form of 2019 legislation which requires the government to reduce the UK’s net emissions of greenhouse gases by 100% relative to 1990 levels by 2050.

Climate action towards net zero carbon

The UK’s climate action goal requires the UK to become a ‘net zero’ emitter of carbon. This will be achieved by balancing our carbon and greenhouse gas emissions against the amount of carbon we remove from the atmosphere.

In other words, like many industrialised nations, we know we cannot realistically reduce carbon emissions to zero, at least not yet, so the aim of climate action now is: “to reduce carbon emissions as far as possible and offset those which remain”.

1300 M&S Beauty Sustainable

Displayplan’s approach to net zero carbon

Here at Displayplan we have pledged to place sustainability at the heart of everything we do by becoming a net zero carbon company. We are doing this for three main reasons:

  1. We believe that working toward net zero – as part of a society wide effort at global, national and local level – is a critically important response to addressing the climate emergency facing the planet.
  2. We know that our clients and their consumers increasingly expect the brands and retailers they buy from to be pushing for zero carbon sustainability, and a report from The British Retail Consortium 2020 states that this expectation is not only influencing but driving purchasing behaviour (see below).
  3. Our belief is that net zero carbon sustainability can only be realised if the commitment to doing so runs through design and the whole supply chain from industrial process to retail transaction and beyond. For example, having already declared carbon neutrality, Marks & Spencer has all partners engaged from the very start of the design process agencies in thinking and acting sustainable. These improved solutions are then delivered through an optimised supply chain that ensures use of FSC wood products and other appropriate materials. M&S now expects, and gets, complete commitment to sustainability from agencies, suppliers and all their partners.

To achieve sustainability targets, we must:


  • Measure current levels of carbon in our retail display design solutions

We measure the embedded carbon content across all our manufactured retail display components. As well as giving us a benchmark for carbon reduction, it also means we can inform our customers of the embedded carbon content in their display units, assisting them in meeting their own net zero carbon goals.


  • Reduce carbon emissions wherever possible

Understanding our current levels of embedded carbon gives us a number of individual reduction targets to work at on an ongoing basis. Our ‘design for disassembly approach’ makes our retail displays inherently less carbon-intensive as materials can be recycled or repurposed instead of going to landfill. At the same time, we continue to reduce reliance on single use plastics in packaging and transportation.


  • Offset the emissions we cannot reduce

Inevitably there are areas in which embedded carbon or carbon emissions cannot be reduced. In these instances, we are working with professional carbon offsetting agencies to ensure we achieve our goal of net zero carbon.

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Consumer-driven sustainability action

The ‘top down’ goals of the United Nations, Paris Climate Treaty and national governments are not the only drivers of climate action.

There is strong evidence of increasing climate change awareness among consumers, and that the environmental track record of brands and retailers is a significant factor in retail purchase decisions.

This is borne out by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which published its own Climate Action Roadmap in November 2020, which sets out a target of bringing the UK retail industry’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2040.

A key driver, according to the report, is that “79% of consumers are now changing purchase preferences on the basis of the social responsibility, inclusiveness or environmental impact of their purchases”.

The report also states that “88% of consumers want brands to help them live sustainably”.

Meanwhile, a report from HSBC called ‘Made for the Future’ found that “almost half of all UK companies are planning to increase their environment-related spending by the summer of 2021”, with an emphasis on manufacturing, internal practices and updated buildings and equipment.

At the same time 96% of businesses included in the research claimed to be “feeling pressure to become more sustainable”, while “86% expect sales to grow during the next 12 months thanks to an increased focus on sustainability”.

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The circular economy

There is no doubt that we face global challenge for sustainable commerce. Initiatives that face up to the challenge and address it head on are happening all around us at a local, regional, national and international level.

In retail display design, as in other industries, many of us are adopting a cradle-to-cradle approach in working to support our clients. Circular economy thinking includes embedding a ‘design for disassembly’ methodology in our solutions, where recycling is balanced against repurposing of materials and fixtures wherever possible.

In packaging and logistics, we aim to eliminate the use of single use plastics by using recycled and recyclable packaging materials, alongside maximising mileage efficiency by optimising palletisation into fewer shipment drops.

In coming articles, we will look at the circular economy thinking in more detail through activities to measure, reduce and offset the use of embedded CO2, as part of our drive to becoming a truly zero carbon business.

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Next steps

Displayplan is a leading provider of sustainable retail display solutions that deliver great brand experiences, grow retail engagement and increase sales.

With 35 years in the display business, we combine retail display design excellence with physical and digital in-store media for the world’s most prominent brands and retailers.

Call us to discuss your retail display requirements and request a call with one of our consultants.

Posted 11-03-21