Physical retail is back, but sustainable!

  • by Scarlet Destiny Admin

In recent years, multi-brand retailers have presented a strong case for sustainability, curating collections based on social and environmental criteria, and allowing customers to filter products by recycled content, organic materials, or living wage guarantees for garment workers.  However, there are some sustainability challenges that remain hard for e-commerce players to solve such as high return rates, emissions and single-use plastic packaging.

With e-commerce only making up to around one-fifth of total global retail sales, the focus instead is turning to physical retail with brands reconsidering the products that are stocked, how they present them and, crucially, the impact this has on the amount people consume. With e-commerce still being only around one-fifth of total global retail sales, physical retail has the opportunity to promote sustainable practices and raise awareness of solutions, as well as reducing returns and promoting sustainable and young designers. The main difference between e-commerce and physical is that while online a customer needs to look for something new and sustainable, in a physical environment they can just stumble across it.

For example, Selfridges has been experimenting with alternative retail formats through its Corner Shop concept store, and has run a series of pop-ups and pilots with circular service providers such as Vestiaire Collective and The Restory.

Just in under a month, the Corner Shop hosted over 20 brands which have now found permanent homes on the shop floor: Parley for the Oceans installed a giant 3D printing machine to recycle ocean plastic into homeware, clothing and sunglasses; Iris van Herpen displayed exclusive laser-cut corset belts and made-to-order dresses crafted from recycled ocean plastic; and Air Company launched lab-grown diamonds made from carbon captured from the atmosphere. 

Although all of the above seem like great initiatives, we all need to see proof of their circularity. Last month, Adidas has been accused by Channel4 of greenwashing as their ‘ocean plastic’ trainers have been revealed to be made out of throwaway bottles given out at a luxury hotel. Recycling plastic waste from another company is still a great initiative, but if brands don’t start being transparent and honest with their audience and customers, they will rapidly start losing credibility and consequentially, sales.

The retailer is exploring and establishing alternative models that allow consumers to reimagine the act of shopping and has implemented circular business models such as rental, refills, resale, and repair, turning the shop floor into a space for ongoing education and engagements with loyal customers. As well as The Corner Shop, the retail has also implemented its very own ‘Resellfridges’ secondhand programme, and an in-store rental boutique from online fashion rental marketplace Hurr.

The e-commerce retailer Stories Behind Things is encouraging slow consumption and more considered purchases through its storytelling, both online and via biannual pop-ups in London, where new products combine with peer-to-peer swap shops. Products are displayed with ample space and detailed descriptions of their sustainability credentials, more like a gallery than a store. The retailer wants to inspire their community and consumers to be curious and to want to know more about what they’re buying.

Another retailer swapping products for immersive exhibitions is Fabrica X, the showroom and concept store of The Mills Fabrica and its 29 portfolio brands, including recycled material startup Evrnu and white label resale platform Reflaunt. Some of its current installations include a body scanning machine for made-to-measure denim brand Unspun; an exhibition showing the process of turning raw flax into Flax London’s seasonless linen jackets; and demonstrations of Petit Pli’s expandable and adaptable childrenswear.

Australian fashion designer Kit Willow created a retail space in collaboration with Melbourne-based urban developers Beulah International, aimed at reimagining fashion retail for a sustainable future. The ‘Future From Waste Lab’ shop sells upcycled garments, from tops to dresses to trench coats. It’s also part designer studio and sewing factory, with a team that does everything on site from cutting used clothes to sewing the fabric fragments into new garments. It is also a modelling and photo studio as well as, effectively, part clothing dump where the raw materials coming in are garments that were otherwise destined for a landfill.

The experience of seeing the end-to-end process, the would-be waste, the amount of time it takes to process it all and the amount of effort that a seamstress, working right there in front of them, puts into making a new garment has the potential to change how people think about clothes.

This concept is the core of the future of physical stores and it is critical for businesses that are trying to change consumer behaviour as how a store is presented, what it shows the consumer can really change mindsets on sustainable consumption.

Running pop-ups or permanent stores-within-stores with third-party service providers allows retailers and small brands to experiment with these new circular models and physical shops without needing to manage all the logistics.

In order to shift away from focusing on linear sales, and start celebrating and embracing circular services, physical retail needs to adapt and adopt these new models in order to get customers comfortable and eventually, only shop sustainable choice.


[Featured image and image 1: by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash

Image 2: by Rach Teo on Unsplash

Info sourced on and]


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