OK, so first admission I have to make is that yes, I took a plane to Dusseldorf last week to see for myself the latest developments at Europe’s tri-annual retail trade fair and in particular what sustainable initiatives there were. Flying there is not the sustainable way to go I know, but until we have better and more affordable rail connections, then sadly it was the only realistic option for me.
But I did carbon-offset, honest, despite the fact that Easyjet claim to do this on our behalf these days… but that’s a whole different discussion.
We all know that retailers and brands are under a lot of pressure to behave more sustainably right now, so I was really interested to see what ideas companies had to move things forward towards a truly greener future.
Sadly I was largely disappointed. Some of the exhibition halls had more to say on this than others: sustainable mannequins made from a variety of non-traditional materials appear to be a hot topic. Perhaps not surprising when they are serving a fashion industry that is fighting a rearguard action against accusations of being the villains of the piece. And freezer and refrigeration suppliers seemed keen to demonstrate how much more energy efficient their latest products were. But then you get to thinking, is that really about sustainability or just reducing running costs?
Unfortunately it came across to me that many of those suppliers in other halls were also being slightly disingenuous about their claims on sustainability. All too often what they really appeared to be saying was, “hey, you know how our products or displays are semi-permanent and re-usable, well we’ve just figured out that it’s more trendy to claim this is about sustainability rather than just peddling the cost-savings of these versus more disposable products!” Of course it is great to see that suppliers are more aware, but when you have been manufacturing wood or plastic FSDU’s for the last 5 or 10 years, but suddenly now you are playing the sustainability card, this feels more like re-branding than a new initiative.
Four stands made a particular impression on me: Quantum4 are a retail design agency whose Quantum Zero approach to sustainable retail design seems to be genuinely refreshing, considering not just materials for example, but how they are combined so that recycling at the end of life is as easy as possible. This can be by not glueing or bonding parts together for instance. They also produce great metrics reports for their customers that show exactly how close fixtures are to being carbon-neutral and recyclable. However, it was also telling that during our discussion about sustainability they revealed that they had been hoping to discover new sustainable materials and processes at the show and had been generally disappointed.
Harrison’s stand at the show highlighted one of the smallest, but most genuine innovations towards a sustainable display future with their Corra-clip, a small paper-based connector designed the support shelves on cardboard FSU’s replacing plastic components that usually mean the whole display ends up in the waste bin rather than heading for cardboard recycling. Along with Holbox, who also majored on their 100% cardboard and grass-paper displays, printed with vegetable inks and the like, they showed to me that innovation is the real way forward to greater sustainability, not just re-dressing your plastic display as sustainable because it potentially lasts longer.
Finally, whilst their display stand was very basic, I liked the simplicity of Runhee who have a very clear proposition, hangers that are made from sustainable materials and are easily re-cycled. Why aren’t we seeing more of these on the high-street instead of black plastic hangers with metal hooks that are so much harder for consumers to properly recycle.
It is sobering to think that by the time the next Euroshop happens, as a continent we will realistically either have had to already take huge strides towards sustainability or else have consigned ourselves to a world where 1.5 degree global warming is already an unrealistic target and serious consequences await us. On the basis of the exhibition last week I am not convinced that enough agencies and suppliers are taking the issue as seriously as they need to for that to happen. In which case the next Euroshop will have to look radically different and be one where sustainability is truly everybody’s focus.
Neil Russell-Bates, Hilltop Display Services