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Regenerative retail: shaping a greener future for museum shops

Yolande Sep, founder of Design to Thrive and Retail Consultant for the likes of Museon-Omniversum and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre shares her expertise on how museums can maximise their shop potential with sustainability in mind.

With more than 25 years’ experience in retail, Yolande is an economist & foresight researcher, advising several museums in the Netherlands on how to ensure their giftshops thrive. Her work helps cultural institutions develop a healthy, business model and mission-driven products. She believes in connecting with nature and the power of the collective, bringing people together to create a liveable planet.

And at the heart of this effort lies regenerative retail.

A journey into the future of retail

According to Yolande, regenerative retail is about creating better conditions for the environment and for the community, healing the damage that’s already been done by humans over recent centuries. This includes creating a healthy business model for both museums and the wider environment, ensuring that products align with the museum’s overarching mission.

Yolande says, “The store is the only exhibition you can take home, so it’s a real extension of your visit. It has to represent the story of the museum and contribute to nature. I help museum stores have a positive impact – not only doing less bad; but doing more good.”

There’s no doubt that sustainability is firmly on the agenda for many museums in this crucial decade where the impacts of climate change are being felt keenly. But, as Yolande says, many find it difficult to form a definition of what exactly it means to be sustainable: “I tell them, it’s not all about sustainability, because overconsumption of sustainable products is still overconsumption. You have to go further to be truly regenerative and create a long-term vision for future generations stepping up to a regenerative strategy.

“It’s not an easy fix or a blanket solution, but it’s about changing our mindsets. In many cases, we need to have less. And for museum retailers, they represent the future of retail as they serve a bigger, higher goal. Money is not the only focus, and that’s why you create space for social and environmental impact.”

Looking at the whole picture

Aligning museum stores and exhibitions with society’s wider effort to respect and protect nature requires a lot of work, which is why Yolande has found her niche helping institutions navigate the journey smoothly. And the first step is studying the museum as a whole.

“I start by chatting with a lot of people, to understand the museum’s identity. Then, I pick out the highlights, and think about how we can make them shine in the store. This helps to connect everyone in the museum and hammer home its message.

“I advise on a variety of factors, such as training staff, creating a story, attracting new visitors and more. You have to look at all aspects of the museum’s network, from curators to artefacts to suppliers and sellers.”

This holistic mindset translates well into the idea of regenerative retail, which is, in itself, a broad term with many factors involved.

“The exciting thing about regenerative retail is that there is not one overarching definition. It’s about bringing ideas together: regeneration, giving life, restoring life, extracting life, destroying stuff. If you put those together, it makes the museum become more alive.”

A playground of possibility

Yolande describes the work she does as a “playground”, throwing the rulebook out the window and introducing museums to a whole new world of possibility. This, she says, helps museums to thrive and see their services as parts of a whole, rather than separate entities.

“The products, the profitability, the nature, the museum, the story. We connect it all together for that special product or collection or story you want to showcase.

“It’s not a case of finding a start and finish. It’s about always learning and there’s never a final point. You can look at factors like how much money was made, whether visitors liked it, but it is about more than just those scores. It’s about ongoing, lasting change.”

Yolande’s upcoming work at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre and Rotterdam’s New Institute reflect this mindset, creating regenerative solutions that involve working closely with suppliers: “We learn and grow from each other.”

Advice for other museums? Communication is key

Regeneration is an ambitious target for any museum, and it’s one that can’t be achieved in isolation. Yolande is quick to highlight the importance of communication in her work, advising other museums to connect and collaborate in order to instigate change.

This can be in the form of establishing a circular economy in relation to goods and products, or simply in the form of shared best practice and ideas for future innovation. She comments,

“It all relies on your collaborations, your partners, and sourcing the right people for the right product. And this begins with redefining your habits. With new words and habits we create a new reality. Change is something that can be difficult but it begins with transparent with communication and taking litte steps in the right direction.

“Connecting together is so important. We all need to make a change in our sustainability, and we can learn from each other and develop together. The more people on board, the better.”

MuseumNext hosts a range of in-person and online summits each year, covering topics such as digital collections, sustainability, social impact, learning and XR. Click here to find out more and book tickets.


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