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Research project: SuperSustain

Supermarkets as Promoters of Sustainable Consumption

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How can supermarkets promote sustainable consumption and production? The three-year SuperSustain research project analyses the motives, measures and effects of the largest supermarket chains in the USA, Germany and Turkey on the environment. The first step is to analyse the extent to which the sustainability profiles of supermarkets differ and what drives these differences. The goal is also to analyse how sustainable practices could be expanded. Dr Hanna Fuhrmann-Riebel is part of the German project team at IDOS Research. She reports on the status quo and provides an outlook.

Sustainable consumption in the supermarket

Sustainable consumption in the supermarket

Dr Fuhrmann-Riebel, given the complexity of the topic, is the project divided into several work packages? How did you get started?

The first block involves analysing the sustainability profiles of the largest supermarkets - including discounters - in the USA, Turkey and Germany. We are currently analysing their CSR reports and press coverage to develop hypotheses about their environmental priorities. For example, we're interested in regionality, animal welfare and reducing CO2 emissions. In the next step, we want to find out more about this in interviews with the responsible persons. Incidentally, this work package is running at the same time in all three countries.

Another interesting question in this context is which factors are behind the different sustainability strategies of supermarkets. For example, this could be customers putting pressure on supermarkets through changing demand and greater environmental awareness. However, it could also be producers, their own management, new regulatory requirements or general social trends. After all, the economic interests of supermarkets must also be taken into account.

Can you say anything about whether there are differences between discounters and full-range retailers in terms of sustainability profiles?

We're still at the very beginning of our analysis. According to initial studies in Germany, it appears that full-range retailers don't generally perform better than discounters - as many consumers might assume. Instead, each supermarket has set its own priorities in which it is particularly convincing and in which it also communicates a great deal to customers. In general, it is also clear that retailers' own brands play a particularly important role. With these, supermarkets have significantly more room to manoeuvre for sustainability innovations than with products from large manufacturers, who are once again pursuing their own plans. Concrete results for this block of work are planned for the coming summer.

It is important to note that countries such as the USA and Germany are already much more developed than many others in terms of sustainability awareness. This is evident from the fact that there are a number of legal requirements in these countries. It is therefore quite possible that discounters in other countries, where the issue of sustainability is not yet as prominent and legislation is not yet so well developed, focus primarily on the lowest possible prices and not on sustainability.

Will life cycle analyses of sustainability approaches in supermarkets also be carried out as part of the project?

Life cycle analyses that examine the impact of services or products on the environment are definitely part of the project. Consumers today are more aware of the environmental impact of the products they buy than they used to be and their demands for sustainability are constantly growing. Specifically, the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany is taking on this task as another project partner.

You are planning consumer surveys for the second block. What are they going to be about?

In order to successfully establish sustainability innovations, such as unpackaged stations in supermarkets, it's essential to understand consumer demand and acceptance for these new forms of supply. We therefore want to find out what motivates their purchasing decisions and to what extent sustainable consumption could be supported in practice. For example, what motivates them to buy products that can be 100 percent recycled or that are manufactured from recycled materials? To what extent do more convenient recycling options have a positive effect on customers' recycling behaviour? What role does information play, for example in the form of labels? Why are unpacked food stations in supermarkets often used so little? These and similar points should be better understood in advance and not just assumed. Another question could concern the motives behind the purchase of vegan or organic food. It is conceivable here that social norms or social trends play a role that should not be neglected. For example, if someone notices that more and more people around them are eating vegan, vegetarian or organic food, they may be more likely to try it themselves. A desired 'green identity' as a consumer or certain status symbols are also conceivable. There are various behavioural science concepts that could be relevant and should be taken into account.

How do you intend to use the results of the surveys?

Based on the results of the surveys, which should cover as wide a range as possible, we want to work with selected supermarkets to develop specific strategies for promoting sustainable consumption. These are then to be scientifically tested in experimental studies in direct cooperation with the supermarkets. For example, in the form of special information campaigns or stickers on products, but also a deliberately different arrangement of goods on the shelf is conceivable. Another option envisaged is to test consumers' willingness to pay for individual products. For example, if they are better informed about greater animal welfare or the positive environmental benefits of less plastic packaging. I'm also thinking of the apps that a number of supermarkets and drugstores have developed. Currently, these are mainly used for offers and promotions. However, they could also be supplemented with sustainability information in order to specifically support sustainable consumption. There are actually many ideas and approaches that could be implemented together. Overall, we want to work as practically as possible in our project and avoid research "in an ivory tower".

The project will end in 2026. What will happen next?

We are currently concentrating on finalising the comparison of the CSR profiles in all three countries and conducting interviews with as many supermarket chains as possible. Preparations are also already underway for the following work packages, such as the consumer surveys. We already want to spread the word about SuperSustain research and draw attention to it at trade fairs and conferences, among other things, in order to make as many relevant contacts as possible and obtain feedback on our work. We want to contribute to scientific debates, but also conduct research that is just as relevant to practice and of direct benefit to political and economic decision-makers.

About the SuperSustain research project

The IDOS, German Institute of Development and Sustainability, in Bonn is one of the leading research institutes and think tanks on issues of global sustainable development. Interdisciplinary in nature, it combines research, counselling and training and forms an interface between theory and practice. Other project partners are the Wuppertal Institute (Germany), Michigan State University (USA) and the Middle East Technical University (Turkey).

For more information, go to:

Dr. Hanna Fuhrmann-Riebel

©Dr. Hanna Fuhrmann-Riebel 2024