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Could the future of high streets help drive a more sustainable economy?

By Kate Parker

28 January 2019
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In high street stores only a short hop from home I can mend my own jeans, screen print a T-shirt, fix a flat tyre or even build a whole bike from scratch – all at thriving independent businesses. Last weekend, I spent a good 3 hours tinkering with my bike whilst a patient London Bike Kitchen mechanic taught me step-by-step to rewire the brakes. A brave venture beyond the simple plump and fluff bike maintenance I’d been doing at home up until that point.

Our relationship to the high street is an odd one – most people want to have one and bemoan the loss of shops and amenities while at the same time shifting their shopping to out of town and online.

It’s no surprise then that the future for our high streets looks bleak – more closures and huge job losses are predicted[1]. However, some are reorienting themselves around experiential businesses filling the gaps between charity shops and coffee and fast food chains. It feels entirely possible they could become places for learning new skills and driving a more local type of sustainable economy.

The shift towards experiential shopping isn’t new and brands like Virgin Holidays, Topshop and John Lewis have all been pushing more interactive experiences, be it through sampling your holiday food, drinking cocktails whilst trying on clothes or enjoying an in-store concert. What I’ve found most interesting, and where there is huge potential, are those tapping into the conscious consumer market, as we finally see sustainability hit the mainstream. 52% of the UK population said they were concerned or very concerned about social and environmental issues in a Deloitte survey last year, up by 37% from 2017[2]. And this concern is shaking up our behaviour.

IKEA are launching a ‘Learning Lab’ in their new London store where you can get tips on how to make your purchases last longer and how to upcycle. The Body Shop are turning their stores into activist hubs, up-skilling teams to run local activism projects. Halifax have partnered with social enterprise Change Please, creating a café and space for in-store talks. John Lewis launched an innovation challenge in October, with the invitation to help shape the future of experiential shopping ‘in line with their values’. Even e-commerce retailers have begun opening shops to dip their toe in the market; TOMS virtually transport customers to Peru to see the impact of their ‘One for One’ giving campaign on local people.

At this heart of this is our need for human contact, for connection. There’s been much talk of western society hitting ‘peak stuff’ but perhaps we should be looking at it through the lens of human connection. We have more stuff than we have ever had before yet loneliness is on the rise.

High streets built around experiences that bring people together are pioneering a model for a ‘post stuff’ sustainable local economy and are giving themselves a chance to buck the trend. Progressive, sustainable retailers and others should be getting behind the momentum that is building up in this area and see what role they can play in this new form of high street.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jan/21/over-23000-shops-and-175000-high-street-jobs-predicted-to-go-in-2019

[2] https://www.bitc.org.uk/sites/default/files/bitc_global_goals_report_september_2018.pdf