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Sustainable Retail Displays

Sustainable Retail Displays

From paper bags to paper furniture: how retailers are making the most of paper’s versatility and sustainability.

As retailers continue to look for ways to reduce their environmental impact, they are discovering that there are sustainable, paper-based alternatives for a surprising number of elements.

Creating attractive, ever-changing retail displays is one of the primary ways retailers keep consumers coming through their doors. Presenting products in attractive ways that invite us to feel as well as look, is one of the biggest differences between the in-store shopping experience and online.

Displays change with more than just the seasons. There is also Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Christmas, Back to School. Some retailers, particularly the larger chains, might change their displays as often as weekly and even daily in some cases, to keep stores looking fresh and keep consumers interested.

But What Happens To The Old Display Materials?

Latest research figures reveal that 86% of consumers check product information before buying so we can make informed and sustainable choices¹; but how much attention do we give to the displays upon which the products sit?

While many retail displays can be updated and reused, there are plenty which can’t and end up going into waste rather than recycling streams.

Retail waste figures, other than for food, are surprisingly hard to come by, but what we do know is that paper and cardboard are consistently the most recycled products, achieving a recycling rate of 82% in Europe in 2020.²

The Benefits Of Paper-Based Materials

Of course, paper and cardboard have a carbon footprint but, when sourced sustainably and recycled responsibly, they are a highly sustainable resource. Plus, paper and cardboard are extremely versatile materials that can be used for an enormous variety of applications, offering an alternative to less sustainable materials. They can also be printed onto directly, adding to the huge number of ways they can be used, and they’re very tactile, drawing us in to touch and linger a while.

Paper-Based Temporary Displays

In retail shops, we have already seen a shift from the use of plastic bags, that are difficult to recycle and contribute to the microplastic problem, to easy-to-recycle or compostable paper ones. For some time now, we’ve also seen paper and cardboard materials used for short-lived promotional displays, such as dump bins that we might see at the end of supermarket aisles, and for countertop displays next to the till. At the end of their life on the shop floor, they can be placed into standard wastepaper streams to be recycled into something else.

Paper-Based Longer-Term Displays

Hanging signs, suspended from the store ceiling, designed to draw our attention to a particular area of a shop, are also frequently made from paper-based board, chosen for its light weight and sustainable qualities. Wall graphics, too, are often paper based; advances in digital printing technology have made it possible for retailers to create bespoke wallpaper and large graphic displays for their stores. These papers are often made using recycled paper fibres and, depending on the adhesive used, can be recycled too.

Paper-Based Fixtures And Fittings

Perhaps one of the more striking and intriguing uses of paper in retail stores is that of fixtures and fittings. Typically, these have been made from wood, metal, plastic and MDF. While wood and metal are usually highly sustainable, plastic and MDF are currently much less so.

Taking advantage of the versatility, strength, sustainability and aesthetic qualities of cardboard, the light shades, cash desk and some of the display shelves in this sports shoe shop in Italy are made from a strong yet lightweight cardboard.

In a bookshop in Italy, all of its bookshelves, display tables and even a rocking horse for children, are made from sturdy cardboard. Left in its natural state, the cardboard makes a strong statement about the retailer’s approach to sustainability.

A homeware shop in Switzerland makes a strong environmental and style statement with its use of cardboard coated in white paper for all of its fixtures and fittings, including storage drawers, shelves, tables and even chairs. At the end of their useful life in the shop, every element can be recycled.

Some well-known brands are following suit:

Dr Martens

The well-known British shoe brand Dr Martens is focusing on sustainable store design and has set itself a target of sending zero waste to landfill by 2028.

At its ‘test and learn’ concept store on London’s Carnaby Street, Dr Martens’ regularly tries out new ideas, which it uses to inform future store design. Its latest fit-out of the store includes displays made from wood-pulp, paper-based alternatives that can be easily recycled.


Scandinavian fashion brand Cos is known for its modernist clothing design. Recognising the impact of fashion on the environment, it offers a clothes recycling service whereby customer can return clothes to be resold or repurposed. It is extending this circular approach to its store designs, looking to be more mindful and circular in the use of all its materials. This means using materials than can be re-used, re-purposed or re-cycled.

It is with that goal in mind that it has introduced a number of interesting materials in its Stockholm store, including a cash desk made from recycled paper.


American retailer Target has switched all of its in-store displays to fibre-based materials because of their recyclability. By adding information about the recyclability of the materials they are clearly expressing their approach to their customers which, in turn, reassures the customer.

Read more about how retailers are switching to paper-based materials, and how we can introduce paper-based materials into our homes:

Supermarkets Switching To Paper Based Packaging