Natural Foods Merchandiser

Closing The Values Loop

Not all naturals retailers practice what they preach. They may encourage customers to buy organic and recycled, but they aren't necessarily using eco-friendly finishes on the walls and floors of their stores.

Retailers looking for ways to close the gap between the walk and the talk can get help March 6-9 at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif. There they can get tips from experts and have a chance to get their feet on some cork flooring and their hands on samples of finishes that are a little easier on the earth. "In an era when consumers are increasingly skeptical of corporate motives, they want to know that you're not just slapping the organic label on your food just because it's popular and PC," says David Johnston, president of Boulder, Colo.-based green-building consulting firm What's Working. "They want to know that you really adhere to those values in everything you do. If you package food in recycled-content cardboard boxes, they want to know if you also recycle in your office.

"You have to close the values loop," says Johnston.

Johnston will present a seminar at Expo, "Building Green in a Black & White World," 2:30 to 3:45 p.m. on March 8. His talk is part of a package of events aimed at helping educate retailers about products, services and designs that are energy efficient, sustainable and ecologically responsible.

Eco-friendly store finishes—such as cork and bamboo flooring, recycled nylon and natural wool carpeting, and salvaged decorative materials—will be shown in use in a 2,000-square-foot Store of the Future, designed by Cedarburg, Wis.-based Solterra Studios, a division of Retailworks. The store is the gateway to the Green Building Pavilion, where vendors will promote the mainstream use of earth-friendly building materials and products.

New Hope Natural Media will literally give away the Store of the Future in a drawing at the conclusion of the show. Details of the program will be available on-site.

What's In It For The Retailer?
Sustainable finishes may not look appreciably different from their more toxic counterparts, and at the moment they cost a bit more. But Johnston and Solterra Studio's Lyn Falk say there are big benefits in opting for a floor made from a rubber and cork composite or endcap veneers made from recycled pop bottles.

Begin with the marketing mileage a retailer can get from letting its customers know that this countertop is made from recycled ceramic tiles or that shelving is made from sustainably grown wood. "The whole point is to be able to claim bragging rights, not just for what you sell, but how you sell it," Johnston says.

And then there's the benefit of being the place where people are taught, however subtly, that every decision they make has an environmental impact. "We as a culture have to learn to think whole thoughts. Just as electricity doesn't come from an outlet in the wall, wood doesn't come from a lumberyard," Johnston says. "The natural foods industry is [or should be] instrumental in helping people comprehend those linkages—everyone buys food and that's the first point of contact."

In more concrete terms, Johnston says, there are three primary advantages to building green.

First, it improves energy efficiency. Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative in suburban Milwaukee trimmed its energy costs by a third by investing in an efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and skylights when it completed a remodel designed by Falk.

Second, green building conserves resources. "So that means doing more with less, using materials more wisely, using water more efficiently and incorporating recycled content in building materials," Johnston says.

Third, the technique improves indoor environmental quality. "That includes indoor air quality," he says. As building techniques have improved, air quality has become worse because there is less natural airflow. "The result is that the modern public health industry hasn't been able to catch up to the chemical industry to determine what the impacts are on humans of breathing all of these toxic chemicals."

However, one of the guiding principles of green building is the precautionary principle. Johnston explains: Whereas conventional building regulations and public health rules say "prove to me that this compound is toxic, the precautionary principle says, 'If it is possible that this compound could be harmful, let's keep it out of habitable spaces.'"

Keeping this principle in mind goes a long way toward letting employees know the retailer is trying to do right by them. "Employees are thrilled to know that the business owner is looking out for their health and the environment's health by creating a space that's healthy to work in," Falk says.

Falk knows firsthand the impact of overexposure to high levels of volatile organic compounds on the job site. About 10 years ago, she and her husband were renovating a house, doing much of the painting and refinishing themselves. "I wasn't told or didn't realize how toxic some of this stuff was. Though I was exposed to it fairly regularly with clients' projects, when I was exposed on a day-to-day basis, my body started putting up red flags."

"I had to make a change," she says. "I switched to become holistic in all manners of my life. To be a responsible designer, I can't spec the stuff that's toxic any more."

There are tangible results to the more holistic approach to retail design.

Consider a double-blind Department of Energy study of a Wal-Mart store in Lawrence, Kan. Half the store was daylit; the other half was lit using conventional fixtures. Throughout the course of the study, different merchandise categories were rotated into the daylit section. Without fail, sales of the products were up 20 percent when they were in the daylit section of the store. "There's a direct correlation between daylighting and shopping habits," Johnston says.

Illumination contributes to energy flow, which influences customer movements, Falk says. "Color and lighting are the two most important design elements that affect the consumer psyche."

Store finishes that feel, well, nice also influence customers' buying habits. "If you use a higher grade of material, there is a higher value perception, that people are getting more for the purchase price," Falk says. "If you go into a discount store that has vinyl composite tile and bright fluorescent lights, you equate that with a lower value. If you go into a store that incorporates a couple of different types of flooring, and where the lighting has been altered to be more friendly, people perceive the value of the products to be higher.

"People might pay a little bit more but feel like it's worth it," she says. "People are tired of saving a penny in an ugly store."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 34, 36

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