By Peter Tonstad
Consumer awareness of sustainability and the desire for more pro-social and eco-friendly choices are growing daily. Sixteen-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, the face of the youth climate movement, and others have inspired young consumers to embrace both “optimism and outrage”, shifting their preference for sustainable options to demand. According to a study conducted by Censuswide late last year, 52% of those aged 16-24 are likely to choose sustainable retailers, while 50% of those aged 25-34 are likely to do the same. Moreover, it is not only young people who say sustainability is important: 48% of those aged 55 and over also expressed a preference for more sustainable options.
Beyond the concept of “Smart Buildings” and the practice of energy and waste efficiency, the question remains: What does sustainability mean for the shopping center business? How can shopping centers deliver the environmentally responsible shopping experience consumers want? As the CEO of Placewise, I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of industry owners and operators globally to discuss the topic of digitally enabled sustainability practices for shopping centers over the last few months – a concept we call “Thread Lightly”. These discussions have recently been focused on three big ideas.
Firstly, more sustainable last mile distribution: Deliveries resulting from online shopping very often represent high inefficiencies from a sustainability perspective. Numbers suggest that, globally, CO2 emissions from freight will quadruple over the period spanning 2010 to 2050 (OECD). Some online apparel merchants have reported that returns are as high as 50% of total sales. Last mile deliveries are not sustainable from an environmental or business perspective. Shopping centers can play an important role here and, at the same time, perhaps expand their business models by offering e-commerce fulfillment and centralized pick-up across all tenants – possibly for new digital tenants as well.
Secondly, second-hand and vintage clothing: Consumers throw away an average of 32 kilos of clothing and shoes per person, annually, says worldwearproject.com. Therefore, it is no surprise that, in the interest of sustainability, second hand and vintage clothing have become increasingly popular. Several shopping centers have already established second-hand item exchange days for their shoppers. Malls are perfect locations for such activities, and the opportunities go beyond leasing floor space to second-hand stores. If organized in a cross-mall manner with your consumer database in mind, it will also be seen as a great contribution to the local community.
Thirdly, carbon offset: Almost everything has a carbon footprint; people generally understand that traveling has a “carbon cost”, but shopping has a carbon footprint, too – from the fuel that is put into the buses we ride to get to malls, to the resources required to produce and ship the goods we buy. What if shoppers could purchase CO2 offsets to cover their trips to shopping centers as well as their new jeans via shopping center apps? Structures for the calculation of fair CO2 representation with respect to the purchase of a pair of jeans, for example, are gradually being put in place. Offering this option to consumers would likely be regarded as a very positive and significant environmental contribution from malls.
Digital is giving shopping centers opportunities for their business models to evolve, and it has also allowed them to provide their environmentally conscious shoppers with the sustainable options they value. Staying one step ahead of consumer demand is always a good thing.