A pop-up store that only sells sustainably produced and second-hand clothes. That is the RE.love concept, the newest store in Batavia Stad. The Fashion Outlet in Lelystad is one of the shopping malls owned by real estate owner, VIA Outlets, which developed this sustainable shopping concept together with its tenants. The aim of these stores is to start a debate about sustainability. But is that the duty of a real estate owner? How does VIA Outlets envisage this kind of discussion about sustainability?
Geert Paemen (Group Sustainability Director at VIA Outlets) explains: “We have two types of customers: storekeepers who rent retail space from us, and their customers who buy clothes. We regularly talk to the tenants about their power consumption, for example, but with RE.love we also want to start a discussion about the sustainability of the clothing itself. The pop-up store is actually an excuse to spark a debate about sustainability with the customer. For example, the sales staff working in the pop-up store has been trained to answer customers’ questions about sustainability.”
Roland Mangelmans (Senior Real Estate Portfolio Manager at APG) adds: “By opening RE.love, VIA Outlets – which we invest in on behalf of ABP and of which we are full owners – will be killing two birds with one stone. They are actively discussing sustainability with the clothing store and with the customers who come to shop there.”
Among other things, APG called for the appointment of a sustainability manager at VIA Outlets. Thanks in part to its initiatives, sustainability at VIA Outlets has rapidly gained momentum, and the company gets high ratings for sustainability standards, such as GRESB [a certification mark that evaluates real estate companies on sustainability, ed.] Opening RE.love is probably the right thing to do in the eyes of the people who come up with these standards. Did that play a part when you were setting up RE.love?
“VIA Outlets has been working on sustainability for several years, even before I was appointed. But you need time before you can achieve anything. And we feel that we have now made enough progress to communicate with the customer about this. All the company’s departments have to operate sustainably if they are to achieve the right results. This year, for instance, we achieved the highest GRESB rating possible: five stars. Take, for instance, the results of our sector: we see that more and more companies are getting high ratings, and that is good news,” says Geert.
Roland adds: “At APG, we believe it is important that the companies we invest in integrate sustainability into their business operations, in all their processes. Consultants could be used for this, but by appointing a sustainability manager, we can rest assured that there is someone who gets up in the morning to go and deal with sustainability in the company.”
So it’s easy to get these good sustainability ratings?
Geert: “No, it’s not easy to get a high rating. Our results are compared with other real estate owners. Of course, they’re working sustainability too, so we need to keep on improving if we are to maintain those high ratings. At a building level, the entire portfolio of VIA Outlets now has a BREEAM In-Use certificate. This certification mark is used to measure the sustainability performance of existing buildings. This standard is also regularly fine-tuned and anticipates legislation, which is also becoming stricter.”
Roland adds: “I can imagine that Geert does have a point about the GRESB standard. But it is a means rather than an end in itself. It’s mainly an indication that VIA Outlets is doing well compared to similar real estate owners. We demand more of our real estate investments than merely having a good GRESB rating. And VIA Outlets is already going above and beyond in terms of sustainability than what the GRESB rating measures. What’s more, with a score of 92, there is still room for growth. And that room would still be there, even if we got a rating of 100. The GRESB criteria are ramped up a bit each year. That also motivates us to keep doing our best in the field of sustainability.”
The clothing industry has not always attracted positive news reporting in recent years. Is the opening of a sustainable pop-up store part of a trend towards paying more attention to sustainability?
“It certainly is a trend, in all sectors. A few years ago, the fashion industry realized that it ought to be concerning itself with sustainability. When, as a company, you start looking at sustainability, the first place you consider is where you can get the best results. For clothing brands, this involves the chain from production to consumer,” says Geert.
You mean like working conditions in Bangladeshi clothing factories?
“Yes,” says Geert. “And, more recently, clothing brands have also started to focus on reducing their carbon footprint. For instance, brands are now looking at what materials they use and how much energy it takes to produce and sell their collections. Most major brands are now working on improving working conditions as well as reducing environmental damage.”
Roland adds: “There is a race to the bottom under way in shopping malls to see who can offer clothes from low-wage countries that are made as cheaply as possible. Clothing that is sometimes made under appalling conditions. This is a trend we would like to break, even if it is difficult.”
And VIA Outlets is trying to promote the discussion with these pop-up stores?
Geert comments: “Yes, we do want to start a debate about sustainability. We felt like it didn't exist at all in the retail outlet environment. Sustainability is growing in importance, for us and for the customer. We, as VIA Outlets, can talk about standards and how much energy we save, but customers aren’t interested in that. If your aim is to make sustainability relevant to the customer, you have to communicate about topics that are relevant to them. That could be RE.love. Holding themed days on, say, reducing plastic waste can also get customers thinking.”