Reducing embedded carbon in retail display design

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We’ve written previously about the case for measuring embedded carbon in retail displays and the use of LIST (Low Impact Shopfitting Tool).

LIST is an online resource which, drawing on a wealth of sustainability benchmarking factors, enables retail display designers to evaluate the carbon footprint and overall sustainability of their plans prior to fabrication and installation.

It is a vital component of retail’s industry-wide effort to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.

Yet measuring embedded carbon alone is not enough unless it leads to carbon reduction.

In this article, we’re going to look at how embedded carbon levels can be reduced in retail display through sustainable design thinking.


The importance of sustainable thinking in display design 

Sustainable design thinking sits right at the very heart of the wider subject of sustainability in retail display.

When it comes to finding ways to reduce the level of embedded carbon in these retail displays, designers are faced with a range of variables that must be balanced in order to fulfil multiple goals.

For example, balancing measures to reduce embedded carbon against cost efficiency requirements can be complex. At the same time, ensuring that consumer brand experience is maintained and exceeds expectation may present retail display designers with a further dilemma.

To bring sustainable thinking to the retail display design process, in particular where carbon reduction is a key objective, therefore requires:

  • Prioritisation: balancing and prioritising different variables (such as those in LIST)
  • Lifecyle planning: an approach whereby retail designers and brand managers think several designs ahead, rather than just to the next display design concept
  • Commitment: display decisions have to be made at the design stage rather than later into the display’s lifecyle.
Tech reduction

Where the carbon reduction journey starts

The carbon footprint of the retail sector as a whole encompasses operational emissions generated by heating, cooling and power across retail space – as well as, of course, by the logistical process of bringing product to the retail floor or warehouse.

These “operational emissions” can be measured and reduced by selecting sustainable, energy-efficient suppliers wherever possible.

The other major carbon footprint contributor is the manufacture and installation of retail display, namely the extraction, manufacture, transportation, assembly, maintenance, deconstruction, reuse and eventual disposal of the materials used in the design. This is sometimes called “whole life impact” and is measured in tonnes or kilograms of CO2.

Carbon reduction possibilities need to be identified across the full lifecycle of every display component, factoring in how each can be:

  • Manufactured using low impact materials and processes
  • Reconfigured or repurposed over its lifetime to extend longevity
  • Reused in new or different locations for the same purpose
  • Recycled at the end of its useful life.

All these factors impact and contribute to a retail display, yet also offer opportunities to reduce the carbon footprint. Each one should feature in a sustainable approach to retail display.


Sustainable display design for disassembly and recycling

Material choice features high on the list of options for reducing carbon in retail display. Clearly single use plastics, composites and other man-made materials impact on sustainability.

  • Using natural vs manufactured construction materials: using natural, renewable materials (timber) from sustainable sources instead of process-intensive manufactured materials offers a clear route to embedded carbon reduction. At the same time, by reducing the finishing requirement – for example processes such as cutting, turning and coating – embedded carbon levels can be further lowered.
  • Applying only sustainable surface finishes: retail display surface finishes must:
  • Not bond different materials together permanently
  • Meet health and safety requirements
  • Be durable, hard-wearing and fit for purpose

As such, PVC wraps or adhesive surface layers applied to core retail display construction materials hamper end-of-life recycling. Sustainably oriented designers find ways to substitute these materials with sustainable options in their retail displays.

  • Selecting recycled vs new material: the carbon impact of material extraction is based on its initial processing, so that each instance of recycling or reprocessing adds only marginal carbon impact to the extent of the reprocessing work itself. So, using recycled materials can reduce the embedded carbon of a new display. Of course, recycling also avoids landfill as well as reducing demand for new materials thus adding further to its sustainability.
  • Adopting modular design: designing modular elements into a retail display means that as components are subjected to wear and tear, they can be replaced individually, rather than requiring the scrapping of the entire display, thus saving considerable wastage. Plus using one component that is used multiple times is cost effective.
  • Switching display substrate: display messaging changes through the year with seasonal and calendar events, requiring frequent changing out and renewal of displays. By simply changing graphic substrate materials from Foamex (PVC) to card reduces the embedded level of CO2 significantly. Card is easier to recycle at end of life and can lead to lower costs.
  • Display design modification: simply using less material in the design and construction of retail displays can generate a significant reduction in embedded CO2. For example, by reducing the material thickness of plywood display cabinets from 25mm to 18mm saved 16% of embedded carbon. This way of light-weighting designs gives positive sustainable results.
  • Sourcing materials sustainably: the further a material has to be transported to site, the higher its embedded carbon compared to sourcing locally, regionally or nationally. Likewise, materials from responsible suppliers and sustainable sources will help to reduce carbon overheads. Flatpack designs reduce the volume of air in boxes, and using box sizes that fit standard pallets enables more effective transportation, reducing further CO2 impact.


In conclusion

These approaches to reducing embedded carbon in display designs may be perceived as adding unwanted complexity to retail.

But increased sustainability and targeting a net zero carbon emission profile by reducing existing levels of embedded carbon is simply no longer a choice.

One option open to retailers and brands that are committing to reducing carbon in their retail displays it to use the services of a retail design specialist such as Displayplan, itself committed to achieving net zero carbon.

Using a retail design specialist can help both shorten the journey and reduce the timescale.

Displayplan’s sustainable design thinking approach is aimed at lowering embedded carbon levels across its display designs and includes:

  • Specifying sustainable display construction materials
  • Removing the use of single use plastics in packaging, surface finishes and display substrates
  • Using modular designs for easy component replacement and cost-effective manufacture
  • Reducing material weight
  • Minimising delivery miles
  • Designing for disassembly for the whole lifecycle from the start of the process.

In our next article, we’ll be looking at offsetting carbon emissions that cannot be reduced using the above measures.


Displayplan is a leading provider of retail display solutions that deliver great brand experiences, grow retail engagement and increase sales. We are committed to a sustainable approach in everything we do.  We won the POPAI 2016 sustainability award through the application of our lifecycle thinking in evolving and reducing embedded CO2 and design for disassembly principles in our displays.

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 08-04-21