From charging for carrier bags to installing less harmful refrigeration systems, retailers are improving their green credentials to appeal to ever more environmentally aware consumers.
An important route to sustainability is the buildings that house supermarkets and other stores.
Retailers have focused on using resources more efficiently, as this is a way to be more sustainable and to cut costs.
According to Charles Zimmerman, vice-president of international design and construction at Walmart, the US retailer: “Long before any of us anywhere in the world knew what sustainability meant, we were very focused at Walmart on energy efficiency. Just simply from the fact it’s our number two or number three operating expense in every market where we are in the world.”
When Walmart began its sustainability initiatives in 2005, he says “energy was one of the areas where we were already well versed, which was good in some ways, but it was bad in others, because we had already picked most of the low-hanging fruit.”
Mr Zimmerman says that once an initiative or technology is proven, it is Walmart’s goal to roll it out across the store base.
“There are lots of people who will build a ‘green store’ or a showcase store and then that is one store out of thousands that they operate. We have typically taken the approach that we will do an experimental store where we try some things that are very unproven,” he says.
But then, “everything that gets proven in these experimental stores [we] very quickly roll out to the entire portfolio.”
He cites the example of LED lighting in refrigerated cabinets, which was trialled at a store in McKinney, Texas in 2005. Even before the two-year testing programme was completed, Walmart could see the benefits, and was soon installing the technology in more than 500 stores a year.
Energy efficiency has also been a key part of the zero-carbon store programme at Tesco, the UK supermarket group.
Lucy Neville-Rolfe, corporate and legal affairs director at Tesco, says one such store in Ramsey, UK, uses 66 per cent less energy than a typical store of the same size, because of energy-efficient design and the low-carbon technologies that heat and light it.
Tesco has a goal of becoming a zero-carbon business by 2050, with an intermediate target of halving emissions per square foot in both new and existing stores by 2020.
It is making good progress, says Ms Neville-Rolfe. The process has also helped Tesco make gross savings of about £200m a year by using less energy and water.
The B&Q store of Kingfisher, the DIY retailer, in New Malden employs ground-source heat pumps to heat and cool the store with geothermal energy taken from the earth via 108 bore holes 100 metres deep.
But it is not just in developed markets or home territories that retailers are introducing more sustainable features.
Mr Zimmerman says: “If it starts in the US, we take it outside the US. But in many cases, it starts in markets outside the US, and we bring it to the US.”
He cites the example of sales-floor lighting in China, where for the past two years LEDs have been used in all new Walmart stores
“We have used China as the test location to perfect that technology. We are just now starting to roll it out into other markets,” he says, adding that this technology has recently been used in stores in the US and Mexico.
Similarly, although LED lighting for store car parks was developed in the US with General Electric, the US industrial group, it was introduced in Puerto Rico, where utility rates are three times that of the US. It was rolled out in 300-400 stores, helping drive down the cost of the technology to the point where it made economic sense in the US.
Consequently, every new Walmart store in the US is now built with this in place.
Tesco has zero-carbon stores in Ireland, the Czech Republic and Thailand. Its leadership academy in South Korea is also zero carbon. The solar roof of its Fresh & Easy depot in California is one of the biggest in the US.
Kingfisher has been opening so-called eco-stores to test new concepts in France and Spain, and is working on a sustainable store in Russia, expected to be completed in 2013 or 2014.
Marks and Spencer, the British retailer, has been making strides with its 180 environmental commitments known as “Plan A”.
As the high street stalwart expands outside its home market, it is also extending its commitment to being green. It has incorporated a number of sustainable features into stores in China, and has opened two “sustainable learning” stores in India, to provide insight into sustainable building practices.
Munish Datta, head of property Plan A at M&S, says there are some significant differences when it comes to sustainable building in India and China. In the UK, it is embedded in legislation, and there is a more established green supply chain for design and construction.
However, this is beginning to change, and he expects the focus on sustainable construction to grow internationally.