Here’s how retailers can encourage more sustainable behaviour

supermarkets shop

(David Veksler, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Shireen El Khatib, Chief Executive Officer, Shopping Malls, Majid Al Futtaim

  • Retailers have a unique opportunity to encourage positive behavioural change
  • The key is to make it easier for consumers to make better choices
  • The prize can be healthier and more sustainable lifestyles for all

The days when businesses could rest on their financial laurels alone are over. Today, being a good corporate citizen is as important as a solid balance sheet – if not more so.

This is because today’s customers will ‘vote with their feet’ and choose brands whose values align with their own.

Companies must demonstrate that they have purpose beyond profit, an unshakeable moral compass and a culture of environmental and social responsibility.

This extends all the way to the consumer, and presents retailers like us with a huge opportunity to provide our customers with the ethical options they seek. As retailers, we also have a unique opportunity to influence behaviour for the benefit of the wider society.


Small changes for good

We’re all creatures of habit. As much as we agree outwardly that we need to be more environmentally friendly or live more healthily, we don’t always find change easy.

As businesses, this opens a door for us to take our customers by the hand and guide them.

One way to do so is by demonstrating that small adjustments can make a big difference towards building more sustainable and responsible consumption patterns.

As retailers, we can entice people to be more environmentally responsible by offering discounts for reusable cups or loyalty points for recycling, for example.

One good example is Germany’s deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, which has reported a 98% success rate, with other countries following suit.

The same can be said for initiatives such as priority parking, charging stations for electric vehicles and solar panels on shopping malls.

It’s all about making it easy and appealing for people to adapt their well-entrenched habits, little by little.

Overcoming apathy

We are also in the unique position of being able to discourage certain behaviour patterns.

Take the dramatic reduction in the use of plastic bags where charges have been introduced. In the UK alone, carrier bag sales by the major supermarkets have dropped by 90% since the start of the charging scheme in October 2015.

Of course, there will always be some who forget their reusable bags or don’t get around to sorting their trash for recycling. However, by eliminating all single-use plastics across our entire ecosystem we can prompt those customers to act more responsibly.

What’s more, initiatives of this kind don’t just work on the end customer – they also encourage the entire supply chain to sharpen its environmental performance.

The reduction in plastic bag usage in the UK shows how targeted interventions can have a big impact
The reduction in plastic bag usage in the UK shows how targeted interventions can have a big impact
Image: The Guardian

Retailers can also play a role in reshaping individuals’ choices to encourage healthier lifestyles.

For example, the incidence of diabetes in the UAE is rising at a faster rate than in the whole Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and the wider world. Rapid economic growth, sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets are all contributory factors to this modern lifestyle epidemic.

To address this, we are working with Smart Dubai to test use cases on healthy consumption patterns by leveraging anonymised and aggregated data that we collect from our daily sales at store level. By doing so, we will enable local health authorities to map lifestyle-related issues and plan targeted interventions accordingly; serious initiatives that are focused on the health and wellbeing of our customers.

Adding to targeted public health interventions, the data will help Dubai’s food retailers to make better food choices available in specific localities. Healthy food signage and displays, free sampling and coupons can then be used to point customers in the direction of more wholesome products.

Join the Voice for the Planet movement

Voice for the Planet is a global online action campaign calling for action on climate change.

Launched by the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community at Davos in 2019 and in partnership with the Netflix and World Wildlife Fund “Our Planet” series, it encourages people to make commitments to change the way they eat, embrace renewable energy, restore nature in their communities, change what they buy and ask their government leaders to act.

Add your voice here.

Inspiring better choices

In addition, we can also help tackle another contributor to the spread of lifestyle diseases – the lack of regular exercise. Due to the hot, humid climate in the MENA region, getting physical exercise like running or cycling can be a challenge.

With this in mind, some shopping malls are running exercise classes, both in dedicated studios and across their halls. You can do anything from power walking through the mall before opening hours in the morning to indoor cycling in an air-conditioned environment. One really has no excuse!

All of this goes to show that, as retailers, we have significant sway over what our customers think, feel and do. We can be catalysts of behavioural change to nurture healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. We will also be guided by them, responding to their preferences for greener products, clearer labelling or less packaging, for example.

This is a responsible business decision for retailers, because it reveals our purpose and the values we embrace – and sends an important signal to the growing number of customers who want to purchase exclusively from brands that share their principles.

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