"Out of the Niche" is the sustainable consumption slogan of REWE Group. In a study, the German Institute for Markets, the Environment and Society examined the progress the company had made towards reaching its goal. Dr Daniela Büchel, the Head of Corporate Responsibility who is also responsible for HR and sustainability in REWE's management team, discusses the issue in the following interview with Dr Ingo Schoenheit of the institute.

Dr. Daniela Büchel (DB): After five years in which REWE Group focused very intensely on the issue of sustainability, talked extensively with stakeholders and conducted a large number of campaigns in its stores, we decided it was time to take stock. For this reason, we teamed up with your imug institute in 2014 to conduct a study titled "Sustainable Consumption – Mainstream or Niche". What approach did you take?

Dr. Ingo Schoenheit (IS): The critical issue for us was to focus on consumers. By that, I mean the customers who shop in your stores day in and day out. In the first phase, we analysed several previously published sustainability studies that we used to formulate more specific questions for focus groups: What do you notice about sustainability in stores? Where do you (still) see problems related to more sustainable shopping?

DB: What conclusions did you reach? Has sustainability become an issue to which consumers pay attention? What do they think it means?

IS: Sustainability is a high priority in food shopping. But this term may not always be the one they use. For instance, respondents stressed the importance of regional products. They want to shop in an environmentally and socially conscious manner. And they look for organic product ranges. All of these aspects fall under the term "sustainability". As a result, you can say that consumers have developed an awareness about more sustainable business practices. But they do not have a clear understanding of the issue.

DB: In this context, we like to speak of "perceived sustainability", something that each individual defines for himself or herself: Individual criteria – like taste, freshness or healthfulness – coupled with social or environmental aspects. This combination intensifies the good feeling associated with the purchase of more sustainable products. But as individual criteria standing on their way, they rarely serve as the basis for a purchasing decision. Let's take regional products as an example: In this area, personal reasons are complemented by such aspects as securing jobs in the region and reducing CO2 emissions by having shorter transports. To us, one key finding of the study was this: creating an alliance of reasons in order to reach the consumer. Another critical issue to us is to credibly and clearly communicate this alliance of reasons to consumers.

IS: That's exactly right! In our meetings with the focus groups, we examined their store receipts and saw that many were already shopping in a more sustainable manner. But we also noticed that this does not always involve a conscious decision that they take when standing at the store shelf or service counter. As a result, consumers frequently do not even notice that they are already shopping in a more sustainable manner. How can you change this attitude? You have already mentioned communications. I would like to use the word "feedback". Pass on some individual feedback to consumers and let them know just how sustainable their shopping habits already are. You could share this information with them on the store receipt or with an app.

DB: Looking back over the past five years, though, we continue to wrestle with the same question: How much information can consumers tolerate? Providing no information at all is not a solution if you intend to be transparent and credible – and this is our precise aim.

IS: You are right. There is an information dilemma. But this is a general challenge that has to be faced not just by retailers. In our discussions with the surveyed consumers, we learned one thing: The stream of information must be simple on the surface. Consumers who want to dive deeper into the issue can turn to a company's home page or read brochures on the issue.

DB: The solution would thus be something like this: simpler, emotional and, perhaps, pointed messages?

IS: The messages should not be simple. They must be simple. But you should not forget that there are two sides to a coin. You will always have consumers who realise that these messages are only emotionally charged presentations and lack any real substance. You have to provide this group with more detailed information that you should continue to produce, like the PRO PLANET website or the Sustainability Report. In these terms, a multi-layered communications strategy must always be applied.

To the study: "Sustainable Consumption – Mainstream or Niche"