Over the last decade, sustainability has become more integrated into the fabric of modern business, whether that be in the food service, fashion, or energy industry, among many others. So how does that concept ripple throughout the secondhand industry, a business that itself is centered around the practice of recycling? As it turns out, there’s plenty to be achieved in that field as well, and Savers is at the forefront of its evolution.
“We were green before green was really a thing,” recalls Ray Silverstein, head of real estate and development at Savers. “The DNA of the organization is really to find clever ways to repurpose whatever we can.”
When Savers began roughly 60 years ago, the company—a thrift retail store that provides new homes for gently used clothing, accessories, and household goods—purchased its supply of donated product from a single nonprofit. To this day, Savers incorporates hundreds of nonprofit partners.
Here’s how it works: Savers purchases all of the donated goods from these partners, paying them regardless of whether or not the product actually sells. Roughly 50 percent ends up on the sales floor and only about half of that sells. Savers then works with organizations overseas in India and Africa to ensure that the unsellable product stays out of landfills and can be put to its highest and best use.
“We try to keep everything we possibly can out of the waste stream,” Silverstein says.
The Nonprofit Network
In addition to working for a company that promotes sustainable, environmentally friendly practices, Silverstein sits on the board of a social service agency in Seattle. He also volunteers at a number of local nonprofits.
“It’s important to give your time and talent to nonprofits,” he says, “because they are resource-constrained and the amount of people that are in need of their services is only growing.”
It’s this partnership with nonprofits that differentiates Savers from most other thrift stores. The process is working, too. According to Silverstein, Savers is keeping more than 700 million pounds of unwanted goods out of landfills every year. This was part of what led him from a career in traditional retail outlets to where he’s at now. “The idea of being able to work with nonprofits, protect the planet, and be customer-focused to provide a great retail experience was really interesting to me,” he says.
It all comes back to the company’s emphasis on the concept of reuse. With Silverstein at the helm, the company embarked on a store redesign that aims to incorporate that concept into its aesthetic. In other words, Savers’ design now fully complements its ideology. This is a major change, as the existing Savers stores were constructed to “create a thrift shopping experience that felt more like a traditional shopping environment.” That allowed for cleanliness, organization, and bright lighting, but little character. The redesign upholds the former design’s functionality, but elevates it by telling a story.
“Our entire business model is based on finding ways to reuse items in a closed-loop approach,” Silverstein says. “Our store environment is the canvas to try and tell that story, and the underlying narrative we want to express is that we are walking the talk of reuse.”
This means building new stores with concrete floors and focal walls forged from reused or reclaimed wood. It also includes decorating these walls with unique, recycled products that serve as “visual props,” as well as implementing chalkboards, energy-efficient controls, and LED lighting. New stores are being repurposed from “second, third, and fourth generation buildings,” including an old police station in Calgary and a chocolate factory in Halifax.
“Our challenge,” Silverstein explains, “is that we want to make it feel exciting and interesting, but we also want to do it so we’re not sending a dissonant message about what we stand for.” And Savers is not, as these stores benefit from the history of its locations as much as the character of its design.
The redesign also allows Savers to address an area in which Silverstein is hoping to improve: the relationship with donors. Because Savers depends on acquiring inventory from its nonprofit partners, the company initially had no need for the typical drop-off zones often seen at places such as Goodwill. The reality, however, is that many of Savers’ partners don’t have brick-and-mortar locations, nor do they have the resources to send collectors to the houses of donors.
With the redesign, Silverstein says Savers is now capable of “stepping in and saying we’ll be that brick-and-mortar opportunity for donors to drop things off that benefit the nonprofit.” Savers pays the nonprofit for every donation received, a process that further benefits their partners, who no longer need to spend money on trucks, fuel, and labor. “We’re looking at multiple drive-through lanes,” Silverstein continues. “And if we can’t do a drive-through, then we’ll have a drive-up where you can pull up your car or truck and someone will be there to accept the donation.”
This innovation will only help boost Savers’ FUNDrive programs, which aim to increase the number of nonprofit partners by working with local organizations who may not have the infrastructure of larger charities.
Ultimately, it’s about more than just design trends or branding. Savers’ redesign is interwoven with its mission, which is to provide value to customers, empower the mission of nonprofits, and protect the planet. Silverstein describes Savers’ mission as “doing good while also doing well.” This maxim is, in many ways, a representation of the central appeal of sustainability. For an organization to incorporate sustainability into the fabric of its practices is to create a final product that benefits on levels both monetary and ideological.
Editor’s Note: At press time, Silverstein was no longer with Savers.