Sainsbury's Olio app

Retailers could be empowering shoppers with sustainable shopping apps inspired by the likes of Olio

The current Covid-19 pandemic is a worrying reminder of how vulnerable our food system is to sudden shocks. The prospect that global epidemics like this are going to become increasingly frequent in the coming years means that our global supply chains could come under pressure like never before.

And with the ongoing climate crisis adding to the growing sense of unease and of the need for sustainable solutions, it’s clear that how food is produced is of increasing importance to the modern consumer. Retailers have a powerful opportunity to both capitalise on this move towards value-based purchasing, but also to transform their businesses towards more sustainable, futureproof models that firmly establish them within the communities they support.

Digital innovation will be critical in meeting these goals. Take the growing problem of food wastage. As shoppers panic-buy following the outbreak, retailers have the chance to help shape more responsible/community-minded behaviour. Food sharing app Olio, for example, connects people with neighbours and local businesses so they can share food they don’t need, rather than throwing it away. Partnering with an app like this, or launching a similar initiative, would be an obvious extension for a large retailer looking both to help cut the 4.5 million tonnes of food UK households waste each year but also to encourage consumers to think and care about each other by placing the emphasis on sharing, not hoarding.

With global trade set to suffer following the current pandemic, retailers could also help shoppers choose more sustainable, locally sourced products, in line with the increasing emphasis on biodiversity in the market. Rice, for example, has to be grown in other countries and transported over long distances, increasing its carbon footprint. But it is also one of the most water-intensive crops, with 1kg of rice typically requiring around 2,497 litres of water to produce. Retailers could be empowering shoppers with apps that scan the product’s barcode, show information on its environmental impact and suggest more sustainable choices, such as locally grown cauliflower rice. Green rewards could be offered as an incentive, for example points that cut the cost of a customer’s next shop.

Going even further, a shopping app could help to raise awareness of the links between certain products and deforestation – palm oil being one of the worst offenders. One free app that already does this is Giki, which provides ethical and sustainable information on over 250,000 products, including whether its palm oil comes from a sustainable supplier.

Taking advantage of these digital solutions should be seen as business critical for retailers. The growing threat from climate change and pandemics like Covid-19 has given rise to a new type of consumer – acutely aware of the impact they are having on the planet and actively driven to adopt more responsible behaviour. These consumers will increasingly expect supermarkets to share the same values and grasp the opportunities offered by digital technologies to create a more sustainable and ethical food system.