Design and Retail with Sustainable Practices

Sean Keating

In Business, Design Posted

Sustainability. It’s a big term used and abused these days. More and more we are beginning to realise how intricately connected we are to the environment around us and how dependent we are on each other. Consumers are done with being educated as we move away from the storytelling phase to story doing. We are on our way towards ensuring the word sustainability isn’t just another marketing gimmick.

Brands across the board are waking up and are beginning to take action. Leading the way, Kathmandu has joined the global B Corp movement for a more sustainable and inclusive economy. They have become the largest Certified B Corporation in Australia and New Zealand and is one of the largest outdoor apparel and gear companies globally to become a part of the movement. Their products include backpacks, fleece jacket and tee shirts made from plastic bottles. Uniqlo have made efforts to reduce water intensive denim processes whilst Zara and H&M have started rewarding consumers for recycling in-store. Adidas have also launched a running shoe using one material type and no glue. Once the shoes come to the end of their first life, they can be returned to Adidas where they are grounded into pellets and melted into material for new products. Fascinating stuff!

It really is an exciting time. Brands are beginning to use their influence to shape the path to a more positive future. They are moving away from the linear model of manufacturing – using finite raw materials to produce goods and when no longer needed, simply throwing them away. By designing out waste, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems we can reinvent the way we do business for good. This is called closed loop design. This is the circular economy. This is real change.



Often overlooked are the very spaces in which these products are sold in – sometimes the first point of engagement for customers! Every single touchpoint from the shopfront to product displays, lighting, even right down to flooring and the build itself has the opportunity to be transformed. Concrete, steel, MDF and plastics have been industry standards for donkey years but recently a number of eye-catching and transformational material innovations have emerged using the circular economy approach.



In recent months there has been a huge surge in bio-based materials and alternatives across the design industry. These materials are made from substances derived from both living or once-living organisms. From coffee cups made from waste coffee bean husk to food packaging made from sugarcane pulp this scene is beginning to explode. These new material innovations are beginning to trickle into our industry as we see more and more suppliers offering these eco alternatives.

Take for example the MDF alternative made from waste potato peelings – Chips Board. Yes, you heard me! MDF made from the waste of your Friday night chipper! The new material is biodegradable post-use and, unlike MDF, doesn’t contain formaldehyde or other toxic resins and chemicals. MDF is widely used for furniture and retail displays but due to its inability to be recycled it can be damaging to the environment. The UK furniture sector alone currently incinerates 140,000 tonnes of MDF per year! With Chips Board, once it has reached the end of its life span, it can be sent to an industrial compost to be bio-degraded into fertiliser for use back at a farm where they were originally taken from. A true example of closed loop design. Samples of the material are soon to be released in 2020. We are definitely keeping an eye out for this one!

Ecovative, another key innovator in this space, have begun creating interior furnishings made by growing the mycelium of mushrooms into certain designs. Mycelium is the network of fungal wires that grows mushrooms. The material is literally grown (not manufactured) by using the power of nature. Once it’s full-grown and dried, it turns into a structural, stable and renewable product. At the end of it’s useful life, the biodegradable products break down just as they do in nature and becomes compost! A partnering company of theirs, Krown, grows tables on demand. Check out their beautiful products ranging from lamp shades to wall tiles – https://www.krown.bio/shop/.

So should we avoid non-bio based materials like plastics? – Not necessarily. Plastics are just organic compounds of hydrogen and carbon combined together. Most hydrocarbons found on Earth occur in crude oil which essentially is decomposed organic matter. They are neither good nor bad, they are just matter that existed on the earth that are combined into different forms. What makes them bad is the way in which they interact with different systems in our environment!

UK based Smile Plastics takes a different approach to plastic. By reimagining the way we use plastic waste they have created stunning decorative panels and sheeting for the architecture and design industry. The material is made from recycled plastic bottles, yoghurt pots, plant pots and food packaging. The recycled sheets have been used throughout commercial fitouts in joinery and displays.

Steel is also another great example of a material that can be recycled endlessly. It is a durable material that can be kept circulating in the economy without material properties being lost.



Choosing the right materials is definitely one of the most important decisions in future proofing your designs. But it doesn’t end there. Embodying the circular and closed loop design principles into our fixtures and fixings is another area we are striving to do more and more at Prospace. Where high volumes are concerned, keeping materials in a closed loop and displays that can be disassembled and reused without down cycling the value of the material in the process.

Considering the impact of our design choices at every life cycle stage is crucial. By taking a step back and realising that every choice we make has a wider influence down the line. Some questions to ask in the design phase:

• Location, Location, Location! Where are the raw materials being sourced from?Where are the displays to be manufactured? How can we streamline the delivery of our displays point A to point B?

• Material choice. Take into account material sizing, the quantities required, the energy required to process them. Will the materials used maintain their value after being dismantled? Can we use a waste material instead? Be resourceful with your materials!

• Modularity – can the design of the displays be modified to adapt to changes in the retail environment thus reducing the need for new displays.

• What is the afterlife of the fixture beyond the brief? Can the fixture be easily disassembled and separated for ease of recycle or reuse.



The answer is simple – Collaboration.

Collaborating with the right partners from designers to suppliers and manufacturers is vital in any interior fitout.

Collaborating with great designers is most essential. Fearless designers willing to ask the tough questions, constantly experimenting with new materials and technologies. With the right clients willing to invest in this journey, great milestones can be achieved together.

On the flip side, collaborating with different brands can also create new unexpected results and can fast track your way to sustainable solutions. Take Westpac for example, and their recent collaboration with Farmwalls in Sydney. Concerned with food quality and food security in cities, they have created a fascinating space comprising of vertical hydroponic gardens. Vegetables and micro greens are grown beneath the Westpac offices utilising otherwise wasted basement space. Regular workshops are hosted encouraging both staff and the general public to participate and pick their own produce. Food metres not miles is the theme here. Brand engagement through alternative channels can elevate your brand presence for positive change.



More and more we are seeing how narrative plays such a huge success in driving customer experience of design. And even better still this can be fueled by sustainability. Take for example the NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center. The space celebrates the idea of re-creation through sustainability and experiences. Customers are encouraged to return their old trainers back to the store. Nike then reuses the shoes by turning them into Nike Grind. Nike Grind will then be used to build a basketball court for the Chicago community in advance of NBA All-Star 2020. Nike are creating a sense of purpose and community by connecting the consumer with both product and the environment through the power of narrative.

It’s time for change and in order to stay relevant sustainability must be at the heart of what you do. Ask yourself what sustainability means to you and your brand, how you can change you habits or behaviours to change things in a small way. At Prospace we aim to make a positive impact on brands, consumers, and our planet, through the application of materials, processes, and circular design thinking. Our collective knowledge is constantly growing, as we work on projects across different industries and continents – helping our clients be future fit. If you are responsible for development in one way or another, reach out to Prospace on how we could help understand more about the tools, materials and processes that are available to fit you!


By Sean Keating
Industrial Designer at Prospace Australia

With a multidisciplinary background in industrial design and interior design, Sean brings a creative and technical flair to any design challenge. For Sean design is the process of envisioning and ultimately creating experiences and solutions that transform. He believes in empathising with people, connecting with their needs, desires and motivations. Feel free to catch up with Sean over a coffee and quiz him on anything design, sustainability or yoga related!