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Climate-Positive Material Solutions for Retail Interiors

Strategies for Reducing the Environmental Impacts of Retail Stores

By Laurence Kieghan, Uniboard Canada; Karin Mihara, Riken USA; and Kenn Busch, Media RDI, Material Intelligence

Retail brands have made great strides in “greening” their products and “LEED”ing their HQs but many are still struggling to bring that same level of commitment to their retail footprint.

We’ve known for some time that the building sector has an outsized impact on our environment, responsible for 39% of all global CO2 emissions every year. Until recently it was assumed that most of these emissions were related to the building envelope and operations, but recent research suggests that updates to interiors have a larger impact over the life of a building.

Metropolis magazine didn’t pull any punches in their December 2020 article: “[I]nterior designers may be responsible for emissions at least equal to those associated with the structure and envelope of a building. Interior design, it turns out, has been doing great harm.”[i]

This impact is likely even greater in retail than in other commercial environments, with seasonal changes in signage, POP displays, merchandising, and store resets.

The good news: through the informed use of low-carbon and climate-positive (carbon-negative) materials we can minimize this impact.

Maximizing Use of Carbon-Storing Materials

The carbon footprint numbers for materials commonly used in commercial interiors might surprise you:

  • Aluminum: 18,009 kg./m3

  • Steel: 12,090 kg./m3

  • Glass: 3,600 kg./m3

  • Composite Wood: negative 780 kg./m3

You’ll notice that wood-based products are the only material that has a negative number. Why? Because it stores more naturally captured carbon than is released in its harvest and use.

Trees absorb atmospheric CO2 as they grow, using photosynthesis to split off and release the oxygen molecules while sequestering the carbon to grow. The chemical makeup of wood is 50% captured carbon, which remains sequestered until that wood either burns or decomposes. This is why wood and wood products are considered such an important carbon sink.

Here’s another important 50% factor: When a tree is harvested for lumber, flooring, or siding, we’re only able to use half of it. The other half was once burned or left to rot, rapidly returning its captured carbon to the atmosphere. Composite wood panels are able to make use of nearly all of the leftover fiber, which means 99% of that harvested tree is put to use in durable products like fixtures and millwork.

This, of course, keeps that naturally captured carbon out of the atmosphere for years if not decades.

Carbon Negative = Climate Positive

Life cycle assessments on composite wood materials show that the amount of carbon stored in products like particleboard and MDF outweighs the carbon released in their production and use by about 40%.[ii] In real numbers, this means an 80-lb. sheet of particleboard is storing 40 lbs. of captured carbon. The carbon released in harvesting that fiber and converting it into a finished panel adds up to about 26 lbs. The leftover 14 lbs. represents the material’s measurable climate-positive impact.

We’ve been using the term “carbon negative” to describe products or processes that remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they release, but brands like IKEA and H&M have begun using the term “climate positive” instead. It’s less confusing than “carbon negative” and opens up the conversation to more than just carbon.

The story gets even better when you factor in decorative surfaces like TFL and 3D laminates carried by these materials. Coordinated designs with great textures allow designers to replace fragile high carbon footprint materials, value engineer projects without compromising their vision, and deliver the low maintenance and long-term durability clients love.

Our CEU, “Climate-Positive Material Solutions for Retail Interiors,” will dive further into the product carbon story, discuss the evolving role of managed forestry, and cover material innovations that maximize visuals and performance while minimizing environmental impact.




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