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Climate control for sidewalks: making stores close the door

A loophole exists in our global warming awareness. As most of us are are investing in energy saving appliances and insulating our homes to cut the need for climate control, there’s a large segment of our communities that still find it acceptable to run the air conditioning or heating while leaving the door wide open. They’re our shopkeepers and until recently, they’ve been able to waste gallons of oil on cooling the sidewalk or on heating the outside air around their establishments without much notice from the general public or greener politicians.

4600 barrels of oil to heat the sidewalk: NYC’s revolutionary ban

This is starting to change. Last August, the New York City Council passed first-of-its-kind legislation requiring stores (those with at least 4,000 square feet or smaller storefronts that are part of a chain of 5 or more in the city) to do something simple, yet groundbreaking: shut the door when running the air conditioning.

The city’s utility Con Edison estimates that if 1,000 businesses keep their doors open, they are wasting 4,600 barrels of oil and releasing 2,200 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent- in greenhouse gas emissions- of taking 425 cars off the road for a year.

Canadian’s for closed doors

In other cities, and countries, change is in the air as well. There are rumblings of local government in Toronto, Canada working on changing the city by-laws to force businesses to keep their doors closed.

Throughout the province of Ontario, the Doors Closed campaign has been working since 2006 to raise awareness that “air-conditioning the sidewalk is just not acceptable“.

Britains energy-conservation morals on trial

In the UK, a movement has begun- thanks in part to a group of friends who started the action group Close the Door- to make open-door policies obsolete. The Close the Door campaign began in the town of Cambridge, England when three friends decided to mobilize to convince local businesses to change their policies. Today, there are over 300 city stores that have agreed to keep their doors shut and the campaign has gone national.

The group has helped convinced national chains to make a closed door company-wide policy and they’ve gained support from politicians like Euro MP Chris Davies who is personally writing the head offices of shop chains. “Open doors are meant to entice customers to step inside,” says Davies, “but with the UN predicting that billions will suffer from the effects of global warming it is morally indefensible to waste energy in this way.”

An industry in denial

There are plenty of holdouts to change. Thoughout the UK, it’s estimated that retailers waste 300 million pounds every year by leaving their doors open. Marcs & Spencer- a store with a voluntary closed door policy- criticizes the retail industry for being much more wasteful than other establishments: according to Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution research, retailers use, on average, 460 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year per square metre for climate control, lighting and appliances, nearly double that of other industry: commercial offices use just 252kWh and factories, 292kWh.

The open door policies of retailers may be coming to an end- either through legislation or voluntarily- as increasingly more politicians, campaigners and consumers become aware of the double standard between what we are being taught to do at home and the energy efficiency habits of our stores.

“In this time of climate change and fuel crisis it is absolutely critical that we all pay attention to reducing energy use and emissions,” explains Jeannie Dawkins, one of the founders of Close the Door. “No one cools/heats their home and leaves the doors and windows wide open and yet we tend to overlook what happens in stores. Retailers who keep their doors open while cooling or heating the store are wasting very significant amounts of energy. Whether as retailers or customers, we can stop this by simply closing the store door. It is that simple. Excuses based on tempting customers in through open doors are not acceptable or sensible.”

Teaching our shops to Close the Door

As we enter the first summer when New York City retailers will be forced to keep their doors closed while running the AC, we checked in with Dawkins for her thoughts on where the movement is headed and for her reaction to the legislation on the other side of the pond.

“It is very exciting to see this legislation going through in New York. It seems to us that legislation should be the most efficient way bring about a closed door policy so long as it is wide enough in application.

In New York the legislation is restricted to outlets of a certain large area. This is very helpful indeed in tackling stores of the larger companies with many outlets who are often much less immediately concerned with their own energy bills/ most difficult to persuade into a change of policy. However, in terms of energy lost this completely misses the very many smaller stores [the legislation covers stores of 4,000 square meters and larger] which, taken as an aggregate, waste very much more overall energy through open doors. It would be very good to see the legislation being extended.”

faircompanies: Do you see any movement from other cities to enact similar bans?

We are working both within Cambridge to see if a bye law is possible here, and also at national level (starting with gaining widespread cross party support – which is going very well – and a private members bill). However this is a very slow process in the UK, and closed doors are not exactly high on the UK political agenda in these turbulent times. I have had various enquiries from Toronto and I believe that the City Council there is going to put forward a local bye law for businesses.

You’ve worked directly with businesses to convince them to implement voluntary closed door policies… do you see this as being more effective than legislation or simply an alternative?

“These complement one another rather than being alternatives. We certainly hope that really effective legislation will result from our efforts now. Seeing an urgent need and realising that a change in legislation would be a slow process in the UK, we had to begin by campaigning. to do this we visited and worked with local store managers to bring about a change in policy, and encouraged customers to voice their concerns to staff and support stores with closed door policies. The campaign is specifically business friendly – an aggressive approach tends to fall on deaf ears and it can take months to re-establish the positive relationship which is essential in the absence of legislation.

Initially only eight stores were willing to be part of the campaign and now we have over 300 within Cambridge, with work set up in seven other cities. Once a number of stores were operating happily with a closed door we used them as a reference and started work with head offices – most recently Vodafone has introduced a UK national policy across 98% of it’s estate outside shopping malls. In several cases work with managers at store level has brought about change on a national basis from the grass roots – Jaeger being an example. Members of Parliament have been able to see how the closed door policy works within their cities and lend their support – as has Prof Sir David King the last Chief Scientific Adviser to the government. This should help eventual legislation.

As regards campaigning, there has been a great advantage in getting to know a lot about the businesses and their concerns around open or closed doors. Several internal case studies have been conducted within companies to provide data within the company on trading with a closed door (Vodafone and Neals Yard among others), and we are about to start a one year project with senior members of the University of Cambridge Engineering Department to provide hard data on energy wastage around open doors when heating or cooling is being used – including the use of air blowers over doorways. Members of the Engineering Department have been very helpful with advice since the campaign began and we take the need to rest the campaign on sound scientific, rather than emotional, principles very seriously. This data should prove of use to everyone trying to introduce properly effective legislation. In turn, the New York legislation is most helpful to us as a trail blazer.”

Should businesses have anything to fear: is there any truth to the idea that keeping your doors open improves business traffic or is that old thinking (pre-awareness of global warming)?

“The bottom line is ‘will this adversely affect trade?’. Firstly, the fear that footfall may go down appears largely unfounded from the very many outlets of all descriptions and sizes that have had a closed door policy for some time. From the internal studies from companies I mentioned we found there is no change in footfall for most stores (Jaeger etc) ; one query over a ‘marginal’ drop in footfall, complemented by an increase in profit which was put down directly to staff having more time to sell to customers  (one or two stores in the Vodafone estate); and a positive effect (in some Neal’s Yard stores etc). Incidentally, on investigation footfall does not equate so directly to profit as is often assumed by many managers – profit relies on a great many other more closely related factors. Somewhat surprisingly we have not seen a single negative effect to trading.

There is a strong fear/urban myth concerning closed doors and footfall among some managers and this has to be taken seriously and addressed. For example, yesterday I was in the Toast clothes store in Oxford where in the course of a 32 C day the reluctant manager was persuaded by his own staff to try closing the door while using AC. More people came in, stayed longer (and spent money) when the door was closed. The time of day (afternoon) may have been partly responsible for increased footfall, but some customers actively remarked that the climate in the shop was more comfortable and the bustle of the street removed. We have found the same positive effect in all manner of other shops from Borders bookstores to gift shops. It is helpful to allay fears through being able to demonstrate the effects of a closed door policy ahead of legislation to get buy-in. In practical terms if all retail/restaurant outlets had to close doors by law while using energy for heat/AC it would be difficult to police – staff/,management support of the policy is integral to it’s success.”

Is legislation necessary: how far can we get with just action campaigns that encourage people to speak up and to avoid shopping at stores that leave their doors open while running the AC?

Campaigning alone is not enough. In effect a closed door policy could end simply with a change of management. Legislation is necessary, but should cover all retail/restaurant outlets *while using heating/ AC (*this is important; natural ventilation alone should be used where/when possible, e.g. at certain times of the year/ times of day, to avoid unnecessarily using energy for climate control) . Legislation that properly addresses energy waste through an open door will be complicated to enforce and must be supported by buy-in from management. Campaigning can play a useful role in reinforcing legislation as it comes in.

The customer’s voice and demands are very important – if made politely they have great effect. We have found many instances of polite complaints filtering up to head offices from stores, where they are invariably taken seriously. If made aggressively, remarks are attributed to insanity and are dismissed accordingly. Campaigns that simply encourage customers to speak up and avoid stores that do not comply with a sensible closed door policy are useful in a limited way. Campaigning needs to include a great deal more than this as I hope I have explained.

Is New York’s new legislation a sign of the times and of our growing sensitivity regarding climate change and energy consumption: would it have passed had it been proposed a few years earlier?

“The legislation is definitely a sign of the times. We are very aware that a couple of years ago the campaign here would have been much less successful. Sadly the sign of the times being climate change, it bears an uncomfortable urgency.”