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Dutch retail project examines supermarkets' role in propelling healthy and sustainable choices

Dutch retail project examines supermarkets' role in propelling healthy and sustainable choices.

A four-year research project involving almost all major supermarkets in the Netherlands has been launched by Dutch-based researchers. The project seeks to examine interventions relating to transparency and support consumers in making healthier and more sustainable product choices.

“Transparently healthy & sustainable” is run by The University of Groningen and Wageningen University & Research and involves Albert Heijn, Aldi, Jumbo, Lidl as well as Superunie and The Dutch Food Retail Association (CBL).

Koert van Ittersum, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Wellbeing at the University of Groningen:

“There is a combination of factors that motivates supermarkets to take part. Many companies realize that health and sustainability are here to stay and therefore have a stake in committing to them.”

“Some people are skeptical about this and believe supermarkets are only concerned with profitability, but more and more businesses are trying to do their fair share.”
A consumer psychologist based in Wageningen will examine decision making as well as engage in controlled experiments. Meanwhile, a researcher in Groningen will use econometric skills to analyze secondary data, potentially looking at data from a period where one of the retailers started an intervention.


“For example, Albert Heijn uses labels on soda to show how much sugar there is, with colors going from yellow to orange and dark red. The researcher may examine if this intervention had an impact on sales. Ultimately, supermarkets will be able to see if interventions are effective.”

Social media is likely driving the sustainability and health trends.

Marc Jansen, Director of CBL:

“For us at CBL, it is perhaps self-evident that supermarkets work together to tackle cross-company issues and topics. By also working together within a scientific research program, the outcomes and learnings ultimately become stronger and more relevant to society.

All supermarkets have an interest in healthy and resilient customers who can make conscious and well-informed choices from the extensive food range. In this way, we contribute towards a healthier and more sustainable Netherlands for all Dutch people by improving transparency in supermarkets.”

He theorizes that social media may be driving the trend:

“The number of outlets and the way that people find or encounter information has sped up a great deal in the last 10-15 years. It is crucial for companies to realize that consumers have much greater accessibility to critical information – this could be both opinionated or factual.

While this can complicate things when misinformation or too much and irrelevant information is taken into account, it also creates opportunities.

Our research project wants to benefit from the growing accessibility of relevant information and use existing technology to make critical information even accessible while shopping at supermarkets.”
Empowering consumers

Critically, the project is not trying to persuade people to buy healthy or sustainable foods. Rather, the goal is to facilitate people who are already interested in these types of products without restricting other shoppers.

Van Ittersum notes that some people may not want to buy healthy or sustainable foods, but that those options will still be available to them.

Although information such as quality marks and logos are available in supermarkets, it is difficult and time-consuming for consumers choosing from various alternatives to compare all the relevant information.

Additionally, much of the information does not meet the criteria of transparency defined by the researchers as disclosure, accuracy and clarity.

The role that supermarkets should play in driving change is often debated. Van Ittersum notes that some people argue that transparency isn’t enough and that stores should stop selling unhealthy options altogether.

However, retailers also have economic factors at stake, such as employees and market demand – supermarkets don’t sell products that consumers don’t want.

In a sustainable move, Tesco recently announced it would eliminate “hard to recycle material” as it launches phase two of its “Remove, Reduce, Reuse & Recycle” plan to suppliers.

This sets out steps that will govern packaging design across all product categories, including removing all non-recyclable material.

Additionally, another study found that supermarket layouts can influence people to make healthier options but that 20 percent of UK shoppers say that supermarkets cause them to go off track when attempting to lose weight.