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Jeanine Aalfs On Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Merchandise For Museum Shops

As museums and galleries around the globe place more emphasis on sustainability and green initiatives, their shops have a responsibility to reflect those same changing values.

MuseumNext sat down with Jeanine Aalfs, Retail and Merchandising Manager at the National Museum of World Cultures to understand how her museum is approaching this challenge and how “greener products” can become ambassadors for museums. 

With a background in product design and design management, Jeanine Aalfs understands better than most what it takes to get merchandise from initial concept to the shelves of a museum shop. Before joining the Museum of World Cultures in 2015, she worked in a freelance capacity for over 20 years in concept and exhibition design for a variety of companies around the Netherlands.

As Jeanine explains, the focus on green initiatives and sustainability isn’t something that is particularly new at the Museum of World Cultures: “Our museum is about people and the issues that affect communities. So, social responsibility and environmental responsibility are naturally relevant to what we do.

“In the last eight years, the product development work I have been involved with at the museum has always had a focus on sustainability. We always have to ask ourselves questions like: who is going to use this product? Why is it important to produce this item? What will it take to make this product in terms of energy and waste? How long will it last for? What will happen when the product reaches the end of its life?”

These questions may seem simple and obvious but, as Jeanine acknowledges, retail and merchandising hasn’t always put these questions top of the list over past decades. Going forward, however, all organisations and institutions are having to challenge their past behaviours and consider their impact from all angles.

Eco-Friendly merchandise can prove popular with visitors while reducing environmental impact

Innovating with Eco-Friendly Merchandise

As an experienced product designer, Jeanine suggests that one of the most exciting aspects of moving towards a more sustainable approach is the challenge of developing new ways of working. She says,

“I love finding innovative materials. In fact, the very first product I worked on for the museum used a material that hadn’t previously been used anywhere in the market at that time. We took a yarn made from recycled cotton and combined it with recycled plastic to create a material that was 70% cotton and 30% polyester.”

That product was fortunate enough to win a Best Product Award in 2017. Not just because it recycled materials that would otherwise have gone into landfill but also because it was calculated to have saved as much as 6,000 litres of water through the manufacturing process.

Jeanine explains that the details of the manufacturing process are important for the museum shop because each product made with this level of care and green credentials reflects the effort that we must all make across society:

“Museums are built on stories. From the history of a museum itself to the content of the exhibitions and even in the museum shop, it’s the stories that help to make people think about their own use of products, their own use of materials and their own waste.”

Another important feature of innovation, according to Jeanine, is collaboration. She says that the museum is always looking to work closely with expertise in different fields – whether it’s in developing recycled materials or perhaps lowering carbon emissions.

“We are trying to develop a closed loop system that removes waste and brings together a responsible supply chain.”

How Museums can get started with green product development

“For me, it is about being curious and looking to explore an idea. In the teams I work with, we often inspire each other to try new things and set goals. From there, you can put steps in place to reach those goals. Those steps may be small in the first instance, but they can add up to making a big difference over time.”

A prime example that Jeanine points to is a basic audit of a museum’s product range to look at whether the shop has too many unnecessary items. In many cases becoming greener means reducing the number of products and focusing on quality over quantity. This can help to cut manufacturing costs, waste and emissions.

“Some museums have thousands of items – from pencils to magnets to keyrings – and all of these have to be made, transported, stored and then disposed of. How often could a museum simply sell just their top-selling products and make virtually the same revenue?”

Similarly, moving away from plastic packaging and single-use plastic bags can amount to a significant improvement in environmental responsibility over time.

But Jeanine is quick to point out that this streamlining and reprioritisation should also be done with sensitivity in mind. She explains that her team often meet with other museums in Amsterdam to share experiences, consult with suppliers and exchange ideas on their journey towards a more sustainable future. She says, “It’s about being open to conversation and encouraging and inspiring each other to be responsible. It isn’t about cutting people or companies out of the loop.”

The result, Jeanine notes, should be a museum shop filled with products that reflect the organisation’s own values without fail.

“It’s not possible, of course, for every product to be perfect and to be entirely sustainable. But we must always be working to move in the right direction and to do our best. For the museum shop we are now looking to collaborate with a company to perform analysis of the lifecycle of our products. We want to know more about our impact so that we can keep progressing.

“At the most basic level, I believe that it is a matter of taking care in everything we do and every decision we make.”

The Green Museums Summit will be held from 26th – 27th February 2024, and will feature inspiring ideas and case studies from those championing sustainability in museums and galleries. Click here to book your tickets now, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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