Deepdive Dialogues Part 2:
Sustainability as a guiding principle  

Conversations about the genuine connection between people and brands.

Four times a year, Kim Tchai and Vera van Beaumont delve into topics about retail & hospitality, creativity & business, ownership & leadership and everything else that comes up. In this second edition, they zoom in on sustainability and the future of brand spaces.   

Kim and Vera, after the first Deepdive Dialogue, you want to talk about sustainability. Why? 

Kim: 'The first Deepdive was an introduction to Tchai and the way we work. It focuses mainly on the present. So, it feels logical to look further ahead in this second edition. To the impact of everything we do on the future. The future of our employees, our company, the world.' 

Vera: 'That immediately touches on the essence of how we view sustainability. It goes far beyond the environment and climate. We take a holistic approach as a family business that has been around for 65 years and is internally motivated to make sustainable choices for future generations.’ 

Intrinsic motivation is one thing, practical implementation is something else entirely. Does the way Tchai is organized make it harder or easier to make sustainable choices? 

Kim: ’Don't underestimate that internal drive! Our organization is non-hierarchical, with self-managing teams that are empowered to take on as much responsibility as possible. Without intrinsic motivation, our sustainable ambitions would come to nothing!’ 

Vera: ‘True, but the fact that we don't work in traditional business structures can also be challenging at times. If we would want to get certified as a B Corp, for example. Not that we're there yet, but we have looked into it. For such a certification, you obviously have to make a lot of things transparent. We are not against that of course. However, the guidelines are based on more standardized processes, making such a framework less suitable for our way of working. Therefore, we will need to find other methods to demonstrate sustainable performance that better fit our organizational structure.   

Accountability is key not only to self-imposed sustainable certifications. Don't you also have to make your sustainable performance transparent for national and European legislation that you must comply with? 

Vera: ‘Documenting everything in detail is a stretch for us. It's not how we naturally want to organize our company. But we are very good at creating transparency, and ultimately this is just an administrative challenge. What matters most is that you do as many sustainable things as possible. How we validate them is something we will certainly figure out.’ 

Kim: ‘All this focus on proving what you claim, is also a good thing. Sustainability has long ceased to be a superficial façade for appearance’s sake. Since this year, the European guideline 'Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive' (CSRD) is in force. For now, it only requires large companies to produce a sustainability report, but all companies in their value chain, whether they are large or smaller like us, need to contribute to this as well. You can see that as a problem, but we like to be inspired by it. All the guidelines provide plenty of insights and ideas to actualize our sustainable ambitions. Since November 2023, our colleague Jill has dedicated herself full-time to sustainability within Tchai. We don't like job titles, but let's call her our ‘sustainability integrator’, haha!’ 

So, you have a committed sustainability integrator. How does Jill fill this role within Tchai? 

Kim: ‘Vera and I have thought it through on a corporate level. Jill  is with us for the actual implementation into operations. For example, she is now building a sustainable foundation for us based on the CSRD guidelines. As part of that, we have just completed our Double Materiality Assessment (DMA). I know, terms like these are terrible, but we’ve gained a lot of valuable insights from it.’ 

Vera: ‘Let me explain DMA very briefly. 'Double' is what it's all about: looking at sustainability from two perspectives. Inside-out: how organizations impact people and the environment. And outside-in: how sustainability-related developments and events create (new) risks and opportunities for organizations. For instance, the introduction of new CO2 taxes or, in our case, opportunities for the development of new sustainable retail spaces.’ 

Kim: ‘In total, there are around 100 subtopics within 12 main topics you could report on, but no one does that. It depends on the relevance of a topic to your company. In the end, we pinpointed 8 core themes that we want to research in depth and report on. What is really great about a DMA is that you’re supposed to consult internal and external stakeholders. So, we did just that. Colleagues, customers, suppliers, the bank. We questioned them all and analyzed their answers. This way, we selected the themes that are most urgent for us.’  

You have conducted in-depth sustainability research inside and outside Tchai. What are the three main themes you will be working on in the near future? 

Vera: ‘The first theme is the inflow and outflow of materials. This covers the circularity of our solutions. What raw materials do we use, how do we ensure minimal waste, how do we ensure maximum reuse, etc.’ 

Kim: ‘The second theme is climate change itself. We will be looking into our energy consumption and CO2 emissions across the board, including further down our supply chain.  

How do we view sustainability in relation to our customers and suppliers? We source a lot in Europe, so it's relatively easy for us to get a handle on this. We are also used to working exclusively with companies that share our values. The third theme focuses more inward, on our own workforce, with subjects such as work-life balance, training and skills development and, health and safety.’ 

The question that looms over these topics, of course, is: how sustainable is the retail business in which Tchai operates in the first place? 

Vera: ‘A fair question. It's true that we don't make things for eternity. Moreover, retail generally encourages more consumption. But when you turn things around, they become really interesting. In this line of business, we can make a huge difference with a more sustainable approach!’ 

Kim: ‘If you consider that brand spaces are inherently dynamic, how can we make them as sustainable as possible? By designing them with the capability to be easily dismantled and reused later.’ 

Vera: ‘Or, for example, by designing them in a way that facilitates easy adaptation, thus avoiding the need to replace an entire display, fixture or shop-in-shop at the very first change. Digital innovations go hand in hand with sustainability here. A screen that always shows up to date content, allows for a point-of-sale display with a much longer lifespan.’ 

Kim: ‘We have implemented an LCA tool for all components used in a brand space. With it, we are able to perform life cycle analyses on the solutions we propose. The environmental impact is also made transparent. This tool is primarily a way for us to make sustainability discussable with clients. It's a great opening to propose alternative, more sustainable solutions.’ 

Regarding circularity, you are obviously brimming with ideas. But how do you reconcile the commercial, purchase-driven nature of retail with Tchai's sustainable ideals? 

Vera: ’We are even more resolute about that. By 2030, we want to have inspired all 100% of the brands we work with to have a positive impact on both people and planet through the spaces we design and create. The consequence of this mission could be that at some point we will have to let go of certain clients. But of course, we prefer to succeed in inspiring them all to take the extra steps.‘ 

Kim: ‘And that’s where it gets really interesting. We have no intention of working only for do-gooders, it is much broader than that. Sustainability is directly linked to our company’s purpose. The essence of what we do at Tchai is to create genuine connections between people and brands. We do this through brand spaces that inspire people and brands to pursue a better world themselves. You can quantify and validate everything you want, but essentially this is how we see our positive influence on people and the planet. A brand that connects people through music or digital devices, for example, can align with us perfectly, even if it is not yet 100% sustainable in 2030. It has a lot to do you’re your intentions, the way you look at the world and the direction you see for yourself as a brand.’ 

What does the future look like for Tchai? 

Kim: ‘No one knows what the future will look like. That's why everyone keeps talking about 'transition'. The process of change is something we can relate to more easily. Recently, Tchai hosted the Global Instore Communication (GIC) event. This international gathering of leading companies in our business took place in Rotterdam this year. As a keynote speaker I talked about transition and how we look at it. And even though I speak of this subject quite often, I always still notice how right it feels, how genuine our story is and how sustainability is an intrinsic part of it. If you truly feel and live your story, you can face a world in transition. In that regard, I really believe that Tchai is future-proof. But storytelling seems like a great topic for the next Deep Dive.’ 

Vera: ‘You're already setting up a cliffhanger, but I want to say one more thing. We strongly believe in the ripple effect. You can make a tiny bit of a difference in so many areas. No one has all the wisdom, but we can learn from each other. In that regard, I like to be inspired by Zero-Waste Chef Anne-Marie Bonneau, who says something along the lines of: 'We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly.'  

Kim: ‘When it comes to business, we are truly convinced that success belongs to companies with their eyes firmly set on the future.’ 

Missed the first edition of Deepdive Dialogues? Read here +