Canadian Consulting Engineer

Retailers Go Green

Shopping. Some of us do it from necessity. Others for pleasure. Whether we're buying the weekly groceries, strolling along Main Street, or browsing the aisles of a supercentre, we are taking part in what is the predominant cultural activity of...

December 1, 2009  By Bronwen Parsons

Shopping. Some of us do it from necessity. Others for pleasure. Whether we’re buying the weekly groceries, strolling along Main Street, or browsing the aisles of a supercentre, we are taking part in what is the predominant cultural activity of our age. We live in the Age of Material Consumption.

This constant acquisition of material goods goes against the “reduce, re-use, recycle” mantra of the environmental movement. However, the retail sector has huge potential for moving society along the path to sustainability simply because it is such a large component of the economy and its influence is all-pervasive.

The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) has been studying the retail sector and in September issued a report, Greening Retail. “Because of its broad reach,” says the report, “the retail sector has the potential to effect significant change in society in a way that no other industry can.”

Retailers had sales of $425 billion in 2008. The sector’s GDP was the same as that of the construction industry, both approximately $74.5 billion. In terms of its environmental footprint, the retail industry has to deal with the fact that it produces six million tonnes of waste and is responsible for 40 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually.

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Most significant for consulting engineers, however, is the fact that the retail sector represents 1.2 billion square feet of property — and counting. That is a lot of opportunity for consulting engineers who can help retailers reduce the environmental impact of their buildings, whether by energy management or other tactics.

Driven by mounting public pressure, many large retailers are already starting to adopt green building practices. Just in September, the Retail Council of Canada held a conference devoted entirely to environmental sustainability.

The speakers were from The Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Mountain Equipment Co-Op, Sobey’s, Grand & Toy, Loblaws and Walmart Canada — all making presentations on how their companies are going green.

Strategies for energy savings

Grocery stores seem to be leading the way to sustainability, followed by department stores and big box stores.

What are they doing? For a start they’re selling more environmentally friendly products, and some are also tracking the environmental costs of transporting those goods.

Retailers are also looking at reducing the environmental footprint of their cavernous buildings. Because energy conservation is easy to measure and provides cost savings, it is

one of the first items on the list. The first grocery supermarket in Quebec that was certified by the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building rating system was in 2007. The Sobeys’ IGA supermarket in St. Pascal-de-Kamouraska on the northern St. Lawrence combines a host of energy-saving technologies. It has an 1,800-sq. ft. metal box attached to an exterior wall for capturing solar heat, it recovers heat for spacing heating from refrigerators, and the refrigeration system has a secondary glycol loop that reduces its refrigerant requirements by over 700 lbs. The HVAC system incorporates fabric ducts made of recycled material that promote indoor air quality. It has an automated building system and high efficiency lighting. Similar strategies are now being adopted by other grocery retailers as they start on the road to green.

Mountain Equipment Co-op has been in the vanguard of the green movement and has installed photovoltaics as well as a green roof on its Toronto store. However, most retailers are still shying away from on-site renewable power.

Richard Hudon, M. Eng., national director of construction at home improvement retailer RONA in Quebec, says that for the large chains, any new systems have to show a payback. “Honestly,” he says, “these new technologies will have to evolve a bit before we can efficiently use solar panels or equipment like that.”

Geo-exchange systems, however, are being used by several retailers. They can take advantage of a ubiquitous feature of big box stores — the parking lot — and use the ground below it as the thermal source. Walmart’s Burlington, Ontario store has a large geo-exchange field, for example.

Walmart Canada has also opened a “high-efficiency” prototype supercentre in Waterdown, Ontario that “will become the norm for future Walmart stores nationwide.” The store captures waste heat from the refrigerators, and has reduced the floor lighting by 20%. The roof has a white membrane to deflect heat.

At the opening of the Waterdown store in September, David Cheesewright, chief executive officer of Walmart Canada, announced that the store would ultimately be operated entirely waste-free. “Our goal is to be the greenest business on the block,” he said. Ten years ago, who would have thought that Walmart, the North American icon of consumerism, would one day be pronouncing itself a champion of environmental causes?

Tough but loyal clients

For Stantec Consulting in Calgary, retail projects represent approximately 20% of the local business, says James Furlong, who is in charge of business development at the Calgary office. He estimates that around half of Stantec’s retail projects “have a very strong green mandate.”

The big chains can be a “tough” market, says Furlong, but once a relationship with a consulting engineer is established, they can be “very loyal” clients. “They want consistency,” Furlong says. “They want a similar approach and a similar output, even with different staff.” But, he says, “if you can consistently deliver, you will get the work.”

Does the retail sector’s cookie-cutter approach stifle the engineers’ creativity? Furlong suggests Stantec uses it to advantage. They apply “innovation through replication,” whereby they build on the lessons of one project and apply them to the next. “We try incredibly hard not to reinvent the wheel,” he says.

But when it comes to changing the physical environment in the store, Furlong says that retailers always have one thing in mind. “Whatever we do, we can’t affect sales.”

MMM Group is another consulting engineering firm that works in the retail sector, but it is a smaller component of their business –less than 8% in western Canada, according to Steven Iker, managing partner of mechanical engineering for MMM in Vancouver. Iker finds that “Green or sustainable design seems to be important for new projects more than existing building fit-ups.” Some retailers do want to go green to advertize their environmental conscientiousness, Iker suggests. But for many of these private sector clients, sustainable design “appears to be important only if there is some sort of an incentive from government agencies.”

Tip of the [melting] iceberg

Certainly, the retail sector’s efforts so far are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what needs to be done to make them truly sustainable. The big box store has too many large exposed surfaces per square foot floor area to be truly energy efficient, for example. And too often the megastore sites are carved from forests or former agricultural land. Their very business model relies on the private automobile, with all its environmental drawbacks.

Then there is the host of small struggling retailers who lease units in strip malls and other real estate, for whom green design is largely out of their control. Bernie McIntyre of the Toronto Region Conservancy says the biggest challenge with tenant retailers lies with the fact that so much commercial development is built “on spec” for rental. The mall owners won’t install expensive high-efficiency HVAC equipment because they don’t pay the utility bills, their tenants do.

Unfortunately, until these traditional business and economic structures change, it’s unlikely that any industry sector — least of all the retail sector — will ever become truly green.

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