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Health, wellbeing & the business case for green retail

Napoleon was supposed to have called us “a nation of shopkeepers”. I imagine it wasn’t meant favourably, but 200 years on and retail accounts for 10% of employment, over 5% of GDP and apparently London is the “retail capital of the world” (according to BIS).

Of course, retail also has an ecological footprint to match and is responsible for a fifth of UK carbon emissions. There are some household names with very well regarded sustainability strategies trying to get to grips with this impact – and some, like Marks & Spencer, have achieved fantastic results in recent years.

However, even for leading companies, the traditional sustainability drivers of reduced regulatory risk, enhanced reputation and operational savings, only go so far. Particularly when it comes to justifying higher capital expense on store refurbishment, fit-out or new build.

That’s why the work that we have been doing through the WorldGBC on health, wellbeing and productivity in property has proved so appealing for UK retailers. We reported almost 18 months ago on the potential for green office buildings to enhance the experience and performance of people, and therefore companies, using those offices. Retailers immediately spotted an opportunity to apply that thinking in their stores and last week we issued a companion report on retail.

Despite growing online sales, the vast majority of purchases still occur in store, meaning “place” is far more central to a retail business than in most office-based companies. The thinking is that if people prefer the experience of shopping – and working – in green shops (because of better air quality, day lighting, thermal comfort and integration of nature) then surely there is an enhanced business case for those design decisions.

What’s interesting about retail in comparison to offices is the vast amount of data that is collected on measures that have a direct link to company performance – sales, footfall, dwell time etc. It’s also remarkable just how much can be gleaned about customer attitudes to the physical store environment by analysing social media reviews. This is all valuable information.

So the potential is there to build a compelling case about the relationship between physical store environment, the experience of customers and staff, and the economic performance of the retailer. However, it’s too soon to say definitively that green stores are preferred by shoppers and staff, and therefore lead to better economics – because we need to build up the evidence base. But I believe it will come.

The purpose of our report was to provide a framework for retailers to get to grips with the data they have access to, understand the impact that their stores are having on users, and to use that information to inform their property strategy.

A number of retailers and asset owners within our membership have been piloting the framework, and are reporting positive results. They are finding it a compelling way to engage the less engaged parts of the business on sustainability, because it talks a language that development teams or asset managers understand. They are also finding it brings together HR teams, customer-relations teams and facilities managers – who might never previously have come into contact.

These are interesting times for the sustainability professional – in retail and beyond. Health and wellbeing provides a key opportunity to align sustainability strategies with a booming social trend, and in doing so integrate sustainability directly into the core business. I think that has to be a good thing.

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John Alker is Director of Policy and Communications for UK-GBC