Sustainable Storytelling

Creating a human connection through materiality
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Posted December 21, 2015

Since the buzz of sustainability swept onto the scene well over a decade ago, many retailers have jumped on the bandwagon and have started creating “green” stores. But many have stayed behind.

According to a 2013 report published by McGraw Hill Construction, Green Retail and Hospitality Report: Capitalizing on the Growth in Green Building Investments, the number of green retail/restaurant construction projects between 2011 and 2013 have more than doubled and were predicted to continue along the same trajectory through 2015. This would place us today with more than 52 percent of our projects having a sustainable story. 

Are you finding in your own practices that half of your projects are implementing sustainable design strategies? Are your clients asking for environmentally conscious stores?

According to this report, retail owners express that 49 percent want to use more environmentally friendly products. (Enter the overwhelming trend of using reclaimed wood in every restaurant and store you walk into today!)

But is adapting a “green” store environment authentic to their brand story? Are brands putting up a chevron-patterned reclaimed wood wall to be on trend and attract more customers, or is it communicating something greater about who they are as a company and their customers? We also must ask ourselves if consumers can differentiate between those that are authentic and those that are faking it.

With technology and access to information in the palm of our hands, I believe “green washing” and falsifying a brand’s retail story is a thing of the past. I believe that through thoughtful selection of materials that authentically tell brands’ stories, they can create a stronger emotional and psychological connection with the consumer.

Starbucks, for example, has a very clear environmental standpoint, and in their store environment, they utilize reclaimed wood at various touch points to allow their customers to engage with the material in a sensorial and memorable way, which allows for their brand story to subconsciously permeate their consumers’ senses. In a SoHo, New York, location, the existing wood floor of the space is left worn and raw, and a live-edge wood counter is used to intrinsically engage the sense of touch. 


Photography: Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

In another Starbucks, this one inhabiting a historical building on London’s Regent Street, existing materials are embraced, leaving the wood floor and wall panels and even the original stair intact. Going one step further, the ceiling over the barista is made from reclaimed carved wood panels that were originally housed in an old coffee or tea house. To create the connection between the customer and the historical artifact, a wood rail forming the queue is engraved with the reclamation story.


Photography: Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

Another great example is the Urban Farmer, located in the Westin hotel in downtown Cleveland. With a mission of “sustaining the region in which we live and eat,” this restaurant creates an authentic ambiance of craftsmanship rooted in the Midwestern farming traditions. This farm-to-table restaurant prides itself on its sustainable and organic farming, and tells its story through the raw, reclaimed barn wood wall panels, exposed brick and an eclectic mix of modern and vintage furniture and decor that attracts customers of all demographics. They even go as far as embracing their philosophy of using local, authentic ingredients by creating a display wall that not only is decorative in its beautifully colored jars of fruits and vegetables, but it’s functional too; I saw the chef come out and take down the jars he needed while I was dining!


Photography: Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio


Photography: Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

More than 160 million tons of building construction debris accumulates each year in the U.S. alone, according to a 2009 report from the U.S. EPA, much of which comes from interior finish materials.

In reclaiming the historic 1885 Puck Building, with 39,000 square feet of space to be transformed from what was once a magazine publishing factory, REI set out to build their flagship store in New York City. With a conscious goal of reducing their construction waste, the design strategy included reclaiming as much from the original building as possible, salvaging existing wood elements and transforming them into new design features.

Extracting everything from the original wood flooring, wood paneling and even floor joists, TerraMai hulled away the 125-year-old material and remilled it into new product to become texturally engaging statements walls, many featuring REI members in action. Located next to the lower level cash wrap, original lithograph stones create a feature that connects people through this artistic display to the history of the building. Carving a large atrium into the space, which would feature a grand staircase connecting the three floors, large solid wood floor joists were extracted and later became the stair treads for the grand staircase.

The use of reclaimed wood in this key customer journey point emphasizes the strategic use of the reclaimed material tells the story and the mission of the REI and connect the customer with the brand though out the entire retail journey.


Photography: Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio


Photography: Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

Rather than giving stores a complete facelift every five to ten years to stay in fashion, what if the initial design of the store strategically selects emotionally connective materials that become part of the iconic retail story?

If those materials truly forge a connection between the customer, brand and store environment and authentically tell the brand’s story, then I believe the material will become a permanent fixture in the store environment, and retailers could reduce their environmental footprint and create more sustainable stores.

Rebekah L. Matheny is the assistant professor of interior design at The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio), where she teaches courses in interior finish materials, lighting design and design studios that integrate a retail brand strategy process. Matheny’s research investigates the sensory perception of interior finish materials and their application in retail design to create an emotional connection between the customer and the brand. Follow Rebekah and her journey with materials on Instagram @rebekahmathenydesign and to start a dialogue about the sensory experience of materials visit her website interiormaterialsmatter.com.