Posh English signs! Worthy every penny, surely.
Posh English signs! Worthy every penny, surely.
Berliner Zeitung/Carsten Koall

Berlin - Are shoppers prepared to pay more for their food if the bigger spend eases their conscience? Would people pay 89 cents rather than 59 for a ball of mozzarella if they knew the difference was good for the environment, and their favourite soft cheese had found its way to the shelf without causing ecological damage?

A Penny in Spandau is curious and is using a new promotion to wade into the long-standing debate on sustainability in groceries. The experiment is intended as a first step in nudging customers towards more informed consumption.

Following a two-week closure for renovation, the ‘Green Path’ store at Fehrbelliner Straße 29 reopened this Wednesday as a “sustainability experience store”, according to Penny spokesperson Andreas Krämer.

The discount supermarket now acknowledges being a part of the problem, even though that's an issue that Berlin’s organic stores have been addressing for years – if not decades. Krämer says Penny now sees itself as an integral part of society which, through its business practices, contributes to environmental harm, making it responsible for finding solutions.

Now, 20 information points throughout the store tell shoppers about a range of environmental factors: mass bee deaths, the impact of fishing and how slaughtering male chicks isn't necessary for egg production.

Mozzarella also gets an info point.

The true cost of food

In a study by the University of Augsburg commissioned by Penny parent Rewe Group, researchers calculated the costs of mitigating the environmental damage caused by individual products. Study author Tobias Gaugler calls them “damage costs”. His calculations are based on findings from previous studies on the harmful effects of fertilisers on drinking water, energy consumption, land use and greenhouse gas emissions.

The campaign in Penny Spandau is a test run. Customers will be surveyed and sales of the marked-up items analysed in the coming weeks.

Gaugler hopes that the trial will bring the study’s scientific results “out of the ivory tower” and “into the real world”. That doesn't mean opening an organic chain, which would usually be more expensive anyway, but with producing price-conscious Penny shoppers.

According to the team’s calculations, one litre of UHT milk would cost 96 cents more, while a litre of organic milk would cost just 75 cents more. Both the researchers and Krämer hope that this relatively small difference will have a “guiding effect” on consumer habits – away from harmful meat and other animal products in favour of more organic and plant-based eating.

The experiment does not take other factors into account like the working conditions in food production, a subject of much recent debate. Light was shed on the horrific labour conditions at a Tönnies meat plant in North Rhine Westphalia that was the site of a coronavirus outbreak in June.

It also remains to be seen whether notifying customers of a price difference on just 8 products out of an assortment of 3,500 will have any effect at all.

Penny regular Susanne Hornung didn’t notice the campaign during her most recent shop. However, the Spandau resident said she would be prepared “to pay more for certain items”.

Meanwhile, the study also ignores social factors. Who can afford a hike in prices? What would the company do with the additional income?

According to Gaugler, price increases should be accompanied by policy measures to prevent “social division”. At the same time, increased revenues should also go to the common good via donations to causes including sustainable agriculture.