A better environment for shoppers

"IT'S WHAT shops will be like in the future," said Jim McCallum of the green charity Environ at the opening last weekend of The Ark, their new retail centre in Leicester.

Many of the raw materials used in the construction of The Ark have a long history. The flooring was previously that of a local mill and was rescued from a landfill site. The heavy wooden doors are from another factory. And wooden panelling around the building comes from old shop counters.

Amazingly, paying local craftsmen to hand-make shop fittings from old wood comes to less than half the cost of buying them new from specialists.

This saves money, loses nothing in quality or appearance, is environmentally friendly, and creates jobs. It is a microcosm of the benefits of being green - which is the whole point of the shop.

Simplicity of design has been a priority, to avoid wastage. Shelving, the shop counter and window displays are manufactured from Tectan, which is a relatively new product created from recycled cartons, with much the same strength and application as chipboard.

Energy conservation is good, through low-energy lighting as well as underfloor heating.

The shop is selling a wide range of environmentally friendly products, from bleach-free T-shirts made from off-cuts to low-energy light bulbs; from jewellery made from reclaimed materials to buttons made out of shells.

Each product is environmentally audited, and tagged with information about how it is made and where the raw materials come from. The shop will act as an agent for Bio-Baby, a cleaning service for re-usable cotton nappies.

Profits from the shop will go as a subsidy towards information provision, which runs alongside the retailing. There are two touch-screen computers, using video and animation, advising users on how to be more environmentally friendly, with a databank on 300 subjects.

An environmental clock produces up-to-date readings on such issues as air quality.

The Ark's manager, Vicki Moore, said that the shop is aimed not at the environmental enthusiast, but at people out shopping who have little idea about how to be green. "We are hoping to get an environmental message across to the people of Leicester without being hard hitting to put them off," she said. " We have subliminal messages all around." To make the centre welcoming, there is a children's play area downstairs, and a wholefood restaurant above. There is also a nine-screen video wall, playing a World Wide Fund for Nature video.

Many of the products sold are produced locally. Ian Roberts, director of Environ, believes that promoting local trading is as important for the shop as other, more obvious, green principles. Buying locally can substantially reduce transport costs and energy usage.

As part of its promotion of local trading, the charity is looking at ways of supporting Leicester's Local Exchange Trading System (Lets), the barter system that is often called "green money", which helps those who are unemployed to move back into the workplace.

The cafe is considering paying staff an additional wage in local Lets currency, and may accept Lets currencies as part payment for goods sold. "We are as interested in job creation as we are in environmentalism," Mr Roberts added.

Environ says that The Ark is the most advanced environmentally integrated retailing centre in Britain. But, environmentally speaking, the future draws heavily on the past.

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