Joumana Saad speaks to Gundeep Singh, Founder of The Change Initiative, an organisation that has recently opened a new sustainability marketplace in Dubai, aimed at easing the decision-making process for consumers.
Selling sustaibility is no easy task, as businesses spend massive amounts of their budgets on green marketing initiatives. In the UAE, the terms sustainability and green are often thrown around by businesses without any serious action plans in place. It is understood that consumers value sustainability and are willing to pay extra to buy a product that will lower their carbon footprint. The main challenge, however, is getting people genuinely interested and educated enough on their options to make that final purchase.
The Change Initiative is aiming to do just that with the launch of their new marketplace, a 55,000 square foot facility, located on Sheikh Zayed road in Dubai. The marketplace is a one-stop green shop for consumers looking to make more environmentally responsible purchases. Inside the store, customers can find everything from furniture made from recycled materials, high efficiency washing machines, organic grocery items, and energy-saving light bulbs for the home or office, along with countless other products. A Michelin-star restaurant and lounge area are also on site, and a certain ambiance fills the area with its trendy and colourful decor, as well as art wall hangings that agree with its theme.
“The idea is to bring sustainability in the range of commercial value,” says Gundeep Singh, Founder of The Change Initiative. “Most of the sustainable topics worldwide range from climate change to global warming, are far removed from the people. If you want people to be sustainable you have to tell them how to do it; you have make it interesting enough for them to adopt it, and bring commercial value.” Singh is a well-established businessman who has held senior positions at leading companies in Dubai. So why leave the world of business, to create something non-profit?
“Success is not correlational to monetary gain. It’s a process where you create something of significant value to impact others. The Change Initiative is one such process in which we are trying to create a global supply chain of sustainable goods to replace unsustainable consumption to sustainable consumption,” Singh says. He explained to me that the concept of the marketplace was four years in the making. His close friend and business partner Robert Kennedy Junior was involved in getting the marketplace off the ground as a board member of The Change Initiative. Kennedy is an environmental activist and the son of the late American presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.
For Singh, this project was not one born out of inspiration, but rather generated from a sense of responsibility. He spoke of personally leading a very luxurious lifestyle in his past, but has now made a complete change in all areas of his life. “I used to have a yacht and Porsches; now I drive hybrids and my house is solar. Toys are very rare; we buy e-Books and conserve energy and water as much as we can. We don’t feel like we’re missing on anything, we’re still enjoying life and having fun, but it’s just a life change,” he says.
Practicing what you preach is crucial to the reputation of any company who markets sustainability. Many companies today like to associate their brands with green values without practising the same values as an organisation. That’s why The Change Initiative did its research before deciding which companies to partner with. The marketplace offers integrated products and solutions from over 50 leading brands and multinational firms, operating in the sustainability space such as, Schneider, Vitra, Ecover, Siematic, Volkswagen and IBM. All of the products sold at store come with an product information card with details on its energy ratings and certifications, and include Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) wood and Energy Star rated appliances.
Vitra is one of the partner company, offering a number of products at the marketplace. The company is a provider of contemporary office and home furniture. Vitra focuses on selling styles that are timeless and always popular with its customers, and often uses recycled materials when designing its products. Sankar Vishwanath, Managing Director, The Swiss Corporation for Design and Technology, a distributor for Vitra, says the biggest challenge to selling sustainable products in this market specifically is the lack of laws and incentives for using these products. Vishwanath encourages SMEs to take advantage of the underlying benefits of having an environmentally friendly workplace for its employees, not to mention the importance of building a reputation. “Quality and sustainable products only enhance the performance of an SME and its work style. This, in time, will improve productivity and a quick return of the investment,” he says.
Roca is another partner company and provider of bath room products that are designed to minimise energy and water usage. Victor Schoone, Middle East Country Manager at Roca, says The Change Initative store is the ideal location to sell its products, with the store offering customers “an impartial view” on the latest and greatest green products available. “In the jungle of products available in the market, The Change Initiative stores basically allow end customers to come to a place where the best solutions are available, which will help them make up their mind about what is sustainable and what is not,” says Schoone. He says consumers and businesses in this part of the world are now “just waiting” for such innovative solutions to reach their market. Unlike some green product offerings, he says the end result of buying such appliances like Roca’s, offers “a significant reduction in their water and energy bills, now and in the future, which in turn makes sense for the customer to go with the most sustainable solutions available. “
Launching a project of this nature, in a place like Dubai, definitely comes with a number of marketing challenges. First, the metropolitan city is not synonymous to eco-conscious living-; it is rather known as a place for a luxurious living where SUVs can be found everywhere on the road. The general knowledge on the topic of sustainability among businesses and consumers remains low compared to other markets and regions. However, at the same time, it is slowly becoming a hub for renewable energy in the region.
Last year, Dubai announced its Integrated Energy Strategy, which seeks to reduce energy imports by 30% by 2030, and recently unveiled plans for a 1,000-megawatt solar power park. By increasingly integrating sustainable development, the Emirate will provide a template for other rapidly growing cities in the region and around the world, and is therefore central to many of the core issues on which The Change Initiative is trying to encourage a conversation.
“Dubai was chosen as the location for our first showroom because, as a global commercial hub, it provides an ideal platform from which to launch The Change Initiative brand, and further build a portfolio of business, knowledge and innovation partners, many of whom base their Middle East operations in the Emirate,” says Singh.
While it is still early to assess the response to The Change Initiative on the part of consumers, in the end, it will be up to the consumers to decide for themselves what types of changes they will incorporate into their businesses and homes. Singh says the traditional gloom and doom approach to pitching green to target customers, is more counterproductive than anything. He says people should not be constantly warned and forced into such purchase; they should simply be advised on the best solutions available to them. However, he is confident that in the long-run, consumers here will catch up and start paying more attention to the types of products they buy.
“If you look at sustainability, when you compare the footprint of various nations, the residents of UAE have the highest footprint for the use of energy per capita water and waste. The only way to go is upwards, so to launch something like this is to bring to the forefront the need to make responsible decisions, to be sustainable and yet have fun.”