The change initiative: Will consumers shop for sustainability?

 By MedilynManibo– Dubai

A pioneer in terms of scale and ambition as far as selling sustainability in the Middle East is concerned, an eco-retailer is making a statement that takes us to examine where sustainability is not part of a business’ corporate social responsibility, but becomes the business’ sole responsibility.

The Change Initiative (TCI), a recently opened 4,000 square-metre retail facility along Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road, claims it is not a shopping destination, but a journey. For anyone who wants to go sustainable and does not know where to start, the eco-store may serve as well as an eco-exhibit house of various innovations in energy, water, waste and lifestyle.

TCI’s chief executive and founder Gundeep Singh spoke to Responsible Business on how he believes sustainability could work with commerce.

Mr. Singh is sharing The Change Initiative approach that could offer businesses and consumers the alternative way of shopping and meeting consumer needs while living sustainably. “My aim is to have a system in place that we adopt more sustainable practices and we get on a path to sustainability. So provide them the solutions and the knowledge today so there are real solutions that will come up in the future which will really make a big difference. Today, there are only few, but as you go along the journey, there’ll be more.”

The store visibly gathers every significant product it believes is necessary to live a comfortable lifestyle in a sustainable way – from diapers to hybrid cars. Carefully decided by its supply chain team, adequate information on how a product is beneficial to health and the environment are hung in huge boards across the store. The store offers several brands of a product as long as they pass the company’s quality control.

Making a Difference

Mr. Singh takes off from the basic concepts of business and shares four strategies, which he believes are necessary for sustainability and sales to be able to live together. “Business is there to provide solutions to people and company. And those solutions cost money. If we can provide alternatives to them, at a reasonable cost, then adoption would be high. If solutions are far away and have too much investment into them, then they’ll never work – for anybody.”

“The first strategy is to find what good sustainable solutions are. Second strategy is to provide real model where sustainable solutions can cover cost, where investments can recover cost or provide real benefit.”

Through a small picture approach, Mr. Singh is trying to show consumers to see what is practical and what difference can a consumer make to his own life - not to the planet –but by looking first into the easiest things to change, which are less harmful to health and to the environment.

“What I’m trying to say here is the solution that can work, which are better…and see if this is something that you’d like to use. We are trying to make sustainability commercially viable - for as long as sustainability is not viable, it will not work.”

Sustainability Appeal

The third strategy is to make sustainability fun and interesting, Mr. Singh adds. The business model is focused on lifestyle, health and sustainability. Products within the store also include  fashion accessories, apparel and furniture that are sustainably sourced and certified by recognized global councils such as the Forest Stewardship Council.

The fourth strategy aims to demonstrate the solution, by providing physical models that are explained by trained personnel to show the real benefit in a particular product. The store exhibits a smart home where a consumer can see which aspect in the home can possibly engage in sustainable solutions.

The store also keeps small trolleys in its campaign for shoppers to choose responsibly and carefully. “We want people to understand that this is about a journey. If we can avoid certain things, we should at least avoid slowly, so that we could push manufacturing into the direction to become more responsible for their actions.”

We are trying to make sustainability commercially viable - for as long as sustainability is not viable, it will not work.”

GundeepSingh,Chief Executive and Founder, The Change Initiative

In a retail environment that is swamped with options, Gundeep asserts the company is going to demonstrate that people can want these things and live with that. He views that Dubai has a chance to show it could become a hub in terms of sustainable solutions to the rest of the world.

 “I feel that if you’re going to choose responsibly, you’re going to choose less. You will spend the same amount of money and you use less. I don’t think there’s anything bad in that. Most people think that there are still a lot of things to waste. If you use your money responsibly, you can still live a very comfortable lifestyle. We are trying to educate people that make responsible choices, make fun choices, but choose wisely, and carefully.”

Supply Chain

In terms of the company’s carbon footprints, the store is smartly designed to save huge amount of energy by using available daylight and is roofed by solar panels. On the supply chain side, as Dubai remains largely dependent on imports, the company aims to eventually look for more local produce to mitigate impact.

I had spoken to more than 200 CEOs around the world, I had visited 200 companies, and have met significant people and I realized that nobody really knows sustainability.

Gundeep Singh
Chief Executive and Founder, the Change Initiative

The Change Initiative has staff trained and informed to be able to explain to customers the products they are buying. “We all are in different stages of this journey, but all of us believe in what we do and that’s the main point. We all know where we are going,” says Mr. Singh.

The company has no initial plans on reporting and wants to set its own pace. “We are not leaders, we don’t want to be leaders, first understand and develop the community. I don’t think anybody in the world can take a leadership role in sustainability. It’s too vast, too complex, a lot of understanding needs to come before anybody can say, opps, this is it. We are a learning organization, a sharing organization and we are an organization that constantly wants to develop.”


A successful businessman in his own right, Mr. Singh has set up his own business called The Learning Curve, before joining UAE-based Al Ghurair Group in 1999. He was also Regional Manager Human Resources at HSBC Middle East from 2002-2006. Mr. Singh was at the far opposite end of the sustainability spectrum before he realized the need for such a marketplace. 

“I had spoken to more than 200 CEOs around the world, I had visited 200 companies, and have met significant people and I realized that nobody really knows sustainability. Everybody is in a journey to understand how to make responsible decisions and at the same time they are in the matrix of a system that is unsustainable.”

He willingly submitted himself and his whole family into the idea of sustainable living. “I talked to my family and so first of all we tried to change ourselves in all the things we could. Having a solar home, hybrid car, finally I came to a point where lots of things which worked out and talked to others to make it work also.”

The Change Initiative is also backed by known business personalities in the region and abroad. Its Chairman of the Board of Directors, LoekMalmberg, is also the Chairman of the Skagen Group. Its Vice-Chairman, Sheikh Abdullah Al Mazrui is one of the most prominent entrepreneurs in the UAE and well-known environmentalist in the UAE and abroad. The company’s Director, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr holds reputation as a resolute defender of the environment and was named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes for the Planet” for his success helping Riverkeeper lead the fight to restore the Hudson River.

A Long Journey

But Gundeep takes a caveat on what his views are about the environment. “I don’t understand the environment, it is too far away, I am looking at sustainability and health and I am looking at responsible decision making. So every action that we do tries to answer something about sustainability. Is it practical, useable, durable? And then, we take a decision on how it should work. We understand the changes happening around us, how far we could control them, we cannot say. We have to first behave responsibly to ourselves, and then to the society and then to the world.”

Finally, he shares his personal journey to sustainability. “I am 20 per cent in it, according to my understanding of what it could be. I’ve done a lot of things than a lot of people around me. But to actually acquire a zero footprint is the future. I am two and a half years into it, I can tell you five years later, how far it takes me.”


SourceResponsible Business Magazine





All, 2012