Rethinking Retail

…And they’re off!  With Halloween days behind us, the retail world has shifted its profit-seeking gaze towards Christmas.  Well, not Christmas itself.  Not the time of year when we’re to be thankful for what we have and generous to those who have not.  Rather, Christmas to the retail world is that special time of year when we open our wallets wider to amass more material goods and give them to those who may or may not need them.  Far too often, the feeling of obligation overwhelms the reservations about gift-list guessing and we end up purchasing stuff that NO ONE likely EVER needs.

OK, so I have a problem with the materialistic side of the holidays. But retail has a lot of opportunity to redeem itself if it strives for the triple bottom line. Retail could become more sustainable by offering American-made products, products made from recycled materials, products made with minimal packaging, products made to last, and parts for durable products (instead of forcing you to purchase a completely new product). For example, I ran into a parts issue with Cuisinart this year.  I acquired an older model of blender; the motor worked just fine, but the blade was broken.  I looked all over the net to find that 1) they don’t make parts for that model, 2) parts from other models are not interchangeable, and 3) I had an unusable blender.   Irritated, I sent the company a scolding email about purporting wastefulness.  I also noted that they could probably make more profit by selling and shipping pieces rather than whole units.  This is an example of durable goods gone wrong.  Anywho…

Retail could also improve upon the awful, inefficient, and unsustainable big box store design.  High ceilings mean more space to heat and cool.  Install suspended ceilings!    Incorporate skylighting to reduce the need for artificial lighting and the cost of electricity, bulbs, and ballasts.  Use energy efficient ballasts and fluorescent or LED Lighting.  Use motion sensors to minimize lighting costs.

Flat roofs span acres, acres that could be vegetated or generating electricity.  Fill the flat roofs with solar arrays or install a green roof.  Solar panels can produce electricity to offset demand.  Green roofs can insulate a building, reduce stormwater runoff, and reduce the Urban Heat Island Effect.  You can have the best of both worlds by combining green roofs AND photovoltaic arrays.  The cooling effect of vegetation can provide more optimal operating temperatures for the solar panels.  That means that solar panels can operate more efficiently when it counts.  Imagine, it’s a hot, sunny summer day and the risks for brown outs are severely high. Your roof can save the day by both reducing the need for air conditioning (see the insulating properties of green roofs) and reducing the load on centrally-produced power (coal power plants) that may have trouble keeping up.

Next, parking.  Parking lots are vast expanses of impermeable area that contribute to urban flooding and the heat island effect.  They’re not usually even filled to capacity

Using a Strip Mall Parking Lot for a Community Block Party

(except for days like Black Friday).  But there are several options here.  First, share the parking lot with other area institutions and businesses.  For example, both 9-5 auto repair shops and restaurants need parking space.  But peak parking for the restaurant will be long after the mechanics have left.  Just overlap the parking lots to utilize the space more effectively.  Another option is to use permeable cool pavements to reduce stormwater runoff and reduce temperatures.  Yet another option is to capture and store surface water in large cisterns.  The cisterns can be used to water the landscaping, both reducing stormwater runoff and improving temperature moderation by the plants.  (See this project using living retaining walls in Washington DC.)

Of course many of these tips can apply to other parts of urban society.  Retail is just one part of the Urban Jungle, which desperately needs a return of nature.  Just gotta get out of that rut!

This is by no means and exhaustive list of possible improvements for retail.  Do you have any recommendations?  I’d be happy to hear them!

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