Another week, another wooden store. But supermarket giant Sainsbury’s latest eco-store at Dartmouth really does mark a new chapter in green retailing. John Ryan reports.

The Devon town of Dartmouth is a long way from London – three to four hours, whatever mode of transport you choose, and is therefore a long way from Sainsbury’s head office in Holborn. Yet this is the location the supermarket has chosen for the latest chapter in its move towards being a greener retailer.

Last week it opened a 20,000 sq ft (1,860 sq m) shop there that is a world away from what you might expect of a conventional branch of one of the big four supermarkets. This store is made of wood, has a bio-mass boiler and boasts wind turbines that are distinctly different from the three-blade versions that feature on many stores carrying the eco-label.

And yet it is hard to escape the feeling that we have been here before. Tesco’s much-publicised wooden store at the other end of the UK, at Wick, Scotland, was also wood-framed, had a series of windmills on its roof and had numerous recycled elements as part of its design.
The Wick store was built from a kit using wood imported (by boat) from Finland. At Dartmouth, the timber has come from sustainable forests in Austria. The question is whether this represents an advance on Tesco, or whether this is merely Sainsbury’s playing catch-up in the eco-store development race?

Externally, it looks different. The Wick store was, to all intents and purposes, a Tesco branch that just happened to be made of wood. If you had taken a digital photograph and then played around with the colours, the chances are you would have emerged with a workaday version of the retailer’s standard format.

The Dartmouth store, however, has not been built along the same lines. Sainsbury’s environment manager Alison Austin says: “There’s quite an architectural feel to this building. It’s also a lovely space to be inside.” The store cost£10 million to build, according to Austin, and, judging by the complex wooden wave that forms the external canopy, a fair amount of that cost has been lavished on a structure that will appeal aesthetically as much as succeeding in cutting carbon emissions.

Unlike Tesco Wick, where the surroundings are pancake-flat, this store is built into a hill. This means that access to the interior is either via the doors from the road above the store, or via the main set that open onto the car park.

The store’s topography merits a mention because being on the side of a hill tends to mean there is a reasonable breeze – providing a good reason for siting the two wind turbines in the car park. These cost about£100,000 a throw, according to a Sainbury’s spokeswoman, so choosing a location where there is likely to be an above-average amount of wind is essential if this is to prove more than an eco-vanity project. The turbines power the store’s checkouts and the maths is simple, if imprecise: the longer this store is up and running and the higher utility prices climb, the greater the chances of cost efficiency being achieved.

Also on the outside of the building is the shed that houses the bio-mass boiler. This cost£250,000 and works by burning compressed pellets of wood sourced locally and created from waste that would otherwise have been dumped. The first of these was trialled at Sainsbury’s store at Alnwick, Northumberland, earlier this year. Again, the Sainsbury’s spokeswoman is quick to point out the business case for producing energy in this way.

Internally, a bit like Tesco, Sainsbury’s has signs at almost every turn, telling shoppers what makes this store different and why it matters. The store and car park communications, created by London-based design consultancy Twelve, are user-friendly and, somewhat predictably, take black, white and green as their colour palette.

The story of the store is set out on a board just inside the main entrance, with details such as the fact that 420 trees were used in the creation of the shop and that an equivalent number of trees will be replanted. And there are almost as many messages about cycling as recycling in this branch. It seems that Sainsbury’s is keen for us all to employ pedal power when shopping, if the metal hoops that serve as bike posts around the outside of the store are anything to go by.

There is only one snag with this. The store’s location means a cyclist would have to be a contender for Team GB’s 2012 cycling squad if they were to come here regularly under their own steam. Nevertheless, this does not prevent the retailer from enjoining us to do the right cycling thing at strategic points throughout the store.

One of the elements that you tend to hear about whenever energy reduction is mentioned is lighting. For most shops, this is a pretty voracious consumer of power and contributes to hefty bills. Not at Sainsbury’s Dartmouth. Using highly reflective prismatic devices, called Sun Pipes, set into the roof, exterior light is captured and spread across the store’s interior.

Marks & Spencer has used one of these in the back-of-shop area of its Bournemouth eco-store, which opened last year. The difference at Dartmouth is that there are 82 of these – on the day of visiting, there was very little electric lighting being used. Where powered light was used, it was predominantly in the form of spots used to light the perimeter department signage and the shop-in-shops that line the store’s rear wall.
All very impressive therefore, but a nagging doubt remains that needs to be clarified if the store is not to be dismissed as another instance of greenwash marketing. How quickly will the initiatives that have been put in place in this branch find their way into other stores across the retailer’s portfolio?

Austin says: “For us, this is a journey that started in 1999 when we opened our Millennium store in Greenwich.” At the time, that store encapsulated all that could be done by a retailer using greenish technology. It was updated at the start of this year and the Dartmouth store is a move on from this again. Austin continues: “You don’t have to build another Dartmouth [to be greener]. What we want to do is take the learnings that we make from this store and then decide what we can use.”

There is a fair degree of cynicism surrounding retail and the green agenda at the moment, and there is a feeling that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Sitting on a sunny day at relatively nearby Totnes station and waiting for the train back to London, it was easy to forget that climate change really is happening and is around us. Sainsbury’s, along with a number of others, is at least doing something to try and mitigate the inevitable contribution it makes to this phenomenon. The grocer claims that carbon emissions at this branch will be 40 per cent less than at its conventional equivalent. You would have to calculate Dartmouth looks like a step in the right direction.