Customer priorities are changing. Although price is still the factor that concerns people most, an increasing number of customers are also inquiring about the origin and quality of the products they are interested in. Retail has an important intermediary role to play in this context. Without an adequate demand and willingness to pay on the part of the customer, responsible providers experience into financial difficulties. And without a broad range of sustainable products, consumers are unable to act in an ethically responsible way. The REWE Group has therefore committed itself to transforming sustainability's niche role into a truly mass market.
An interview with: Dr Daniela Büchel (REWE Group) and Dr Ingo Schoenheit (the Institute for Markets, the Environment and Society) discuss the background and results of the institute's consumer study in 2014.
To the interview
Buying exactly the "right" product is not always an easy thing to do. Most of us will have spent a few moments looking at the assortment on the shelf and wondering whether to pick the cheapest article or the presumably higher-quality product. But is there a fast and accurate way to tell the difference?
There is a general feeling that we have less and less time to shop around. At the same time, however, our requirements on quality and transparency are greater than ever before – and are coupled with a growing need for information before we are prepared to make a purchasing decision. A large number of today's customers want to know where products come from and are interested in the social and environmental conditions under which they are produced. In several product categories – such as baby food, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, bread and baked goods – sustainability factors such as the above are even more important to customers than the brand itself.
There's more to sustainability than just a "clear conscience"
But do all these developments mean that sustainability is moving out of its niche and into the mainstream? This is what the REWE Group decided to find out by commissioning the imug Institute to carry out a consumer survey. The study concluded that Germany consumers see factors such as sustainability, regionality, environmental protection and fairness not merely as "nice to have" – they regard them as being quality criteria that are just as important as taste and price. However, customers are frequently confused by the wide range of product characteristics they need to compare. As well as clear labelling, they need simple explanations that heighten their understanding of sustainability and enable them to act accordingly.
Customers expect simple solutions
A better awareness of environmental and social conditions doesn't automatically lead to people choosing a better product. One explanation for this disparity between conviction and purchasing behaviour is that quality characteristics such as sustainability are not immediately apparent on the product itself. Because the purchase of staple foodstuffs is governed by habit, special characteristics need to be drawn to the attention of consumers through a special form of labelling.
Above all, consumers want sustainability to be transparent and simple to understand. For the participants in the imug survey, putting an end to complexity was one the main priorities. Consequently, imug has recommended further studies be carried out to gain a better understanding of how consumers make intuitive purchasing decisions. Moreover, intelligent "rules of thumb" are needed to simplify more sustainable consumption. One move in the right direction is the PRO PLANET label, introduced by the REWE Group as far back as 2010.
Over 6,700 more sustainable products available at REWE, PENNY and toom Baumarkt DIY stores
"The REWE Group aims to encourage the behaviour of customers who are already shopping consciously and, at the same time, awaken the interest of a wider circle of consumers in a more sustainable product range", says Simone Prester-Lück, head of sustainable marketing at REWE. The goal behind this strategy is to move sustainability out of its current niche and into the mass market. The PRO PLANET label employs transparency and emotional messages to further this aim. Using the campaign motto "Sei ein Teil von gut" (Be Part of the Good), the REWE Group demonstrates how easy it can be to make more sustainable choices. Over 500 of the company's store brand products already carry the label.
Moreover, German branches of REWE, PENNY and toom Baumarkt DIY stores currently stock more than 6,700 more sustainable products which are appropriately labelled for the convenience of consumers. Apart from the store brand items bearing the PRO PLANET label, this total also includes organic and regional products as well as a number of other eco-seals such as Fairtrade, FSC or Rainforest Alliance (see also Green Products). What's more, the travel and tourism companies belonging to the REWE Group have started to increase the number of sustainable travel deals they offer. They also highlight these deals in their catalogues and inform customers of their benefits for the environment and humanity in general.
Sustainability Weeks: 70 million customer contacts for more sustainable consumption
The REWE Group welcomes around 70 million customers to its stores every week. This huge number of customer contacts opens up real opportunities to raise people's awareness about more sustainable lifestyles. During Sustainability Weeks, originally launched in 2011 and now held several times every year at branches of REWE, PENNY, toom Baumarkt DIY stores and DER Touristik travel agencies, the REWE Group informs customers about its wide range of more sustainable products and services.
"Sustainability concerns and unites us all", says Daniela Büchel, head of sustainability at the REWE Group. And this is why "Out of the Niche" has been chosen as the motto of the company's sustainability strategy. With their various campaigns and focus issues, the Sustainability Weeks conducted during 2013 and 2014 helped to promote this goal, serving as interfaces between producers and consumers. One the one hand, they motivate the manufacturers of brand products to emphasise sustainability when aligning and presenting their offerings. As a particular incentive for its suppliers during these Sustainability Weeks, the REWE Group invites consumers to participate in voting for the most sustainable brand products. As entrants for this consumer award competition called "Hallo Erde" (Hello Earth), REWE nominates products that have been previously tested for sustainability by the Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP). On the other hand, the Sustainability Weeks serve to heighten customers' awareness of sustainability within the overall social context.
Diversity is worth protecting for customers
Here is just one example. During the Sustainability Weeks that spotlighted the "protection of animals and plants", the focus was on the proverbially "busy" bees. Experts estimate the economic added value of their pollination activities to be worth around 110 billion euros. For every jar of honey sold during REWE's bee campaign, between 30 and 50 cents went to the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) for projects aimed at protecting and promoting meadow orchards.
The tall and scattered fruit trees on such orchards are regarded as particularly species-rich habitats. As well as supporting over 3,000 varieties of fruit, they provide refuge and food for more than 5,000 types of animals and plants. During the REWE Sustainability Weeks in 2013 and 2014, a total of 260,000 euros was collected for the provision of additional "bee-friendly" meadow orchards. And in its brochure entitled "Viel mehr als nur Honig" (Much More than Just Honey), REWE explained the positive role bees play and the current threats they are facing. Greater biodiversity – on conventional plantations as well – is also the aim of the REWE Group's collaboration with NABU, the Lake Constance Foundation and the PRO PLANET apple growers.
"We cannot leave farmers alone with the job of protecting our biodiversity, and expect them to do it free of charge as well“, explains Monika Hachtel from NABU's apple project in the Rhineland area of Germany. The price of a product should clearly not be the only criterion for purchasing it. "But consumers first need to be more aware of their own responsibility. The PRO PLANET campaign is a good start."