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Embedding the SDGs using nudging in airport management

Christophe Funk

Embedding the SDGs with the help of nudging in airport management

This article provides an overview of how to increase sustainability at the airport. In this context the airside passenger area of the airport is examined. This increase will be achieved with the help of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations and the nudging theory developed after Thaler and Sunstein. Selected studies as well as expert interviews with representatives from science, business and government were used to identify the areas of application and the appropriate SDGs and to derive suitable nudges. If you are interested in this catalogue of measures and the exact data, please contact us! 

In order to develop these nudges, assumptions had to be made, problems of the SDGs of the main group had to be further defined with regard to the scope of application of the airside area of the airport and, if possible, supported by statements from the interviews. Thus could be ensured, that all perspectives, views and experiences of the interviewed persons are taken into account. With the help of this type of interpretation, the results of the interviews are directly integrated and used in practical applications. It should also be mentioned that these approaches are complemented by selected studies.

Like this, the assumptions made about the individual SDGs and their objectives are transparent and comprehensible to the reader. Furthermore, the problems to be solved with regard to the SDGs are disclosed and it is explained where the nudges can be used. For this reason, the following sub-chapters are structured according to the SDGs so that the results can be directly incorporated into practical evaluation and application.

SDG 2 - No Hunger

The first SDG to be examined more closely is “No Hunger” (SDG 2 - Zero Hunger). Based on this goal and its sub-goals, there are three approaches to address this problem. The first approach is to produce more food in order to reduce hunger worldwide. However, this is seen as the wrong approach, as it would in turn lead to greater resource use, which is not in line with the definition of sustainability. For this reason, there are two further basic assumptions, which are confirmed by the Federal Environment Agency’s study on the use of natural resources, in order to fulfil the objectives of this SDG, which have already been explained. The second approach would be lower production with regard to excessive resource consumption. This would allow production areas to be saved and better used elsewhere (SDG 2-2.4). The third approach would be the more efficient and effective use of available food to achieve the SDG goals (Lutter et al., 2018, pp. 10-11).

In order to achieve this sub-target (SDG 2-2.4), the second and third approaches are used in this paper. In this context, it should be mentioned that the second approach is not consistent with CSR or nudging. This is due to the fact that a lower production would not work economically and legally due to the existing jobs and contracts and furthermore, in this way the previous selection would be paternalistically reduced, which is not in line with the idea of nudging. Nevertheless, if food is used more efficiently and effectively, less must be produced over time to meet passengers’ needs. Thus approach 2 and approach 3 are related.

In order to further develop the third approach of a more efficient and effective use of food, and also to create room for the developed nudges, there are again two possibilities. The first strategy focuses on a better distribution of resources. Surpluses can be donated, for example. Even if there is no direct connection with CSR or sustainable management, this philanthropic approach can nevertheless lead to a more sustainable solution in transition and in exceptional cases. It also strengthens regional ties with local stakeholders, as these surpluses can be donated to regional communities. Furthermore, surpluses can also be used to support zero hunger measures in other countries through cooperation (SDG17). As is already the case at Munich Airport, customers in the form of airlines can be used to transport these surpluses to other airports. At the same time, this strategy can also be used to sell and use products from the region of the airport in other destinations.

A further strategy is concerned with the optimised sale and purchase of food. Although the purchase of food is not directly related to the passengers, other SDGs can also be involved in the problem solving, as indirect effects on the passengers can be assumed. With regard to purchasing, the airport, i.e. the company, should develop guidelines so that certain criteria must be observed throughout the company when purchasing. NABU, for example, has developed a corresponding guideline for sustainable purchasing in cooperation with the Federal Environment Agency (NABU, 2020). Both SDG 14 - Life below Water and SDG 15 - Life on Land - can be included in this approach, as can goal 2.5 of SDG 2. This goal is supported by purchasing from regional and sustainable producers. In the development of nudges with regard to sales to passengers, a focus can be placed on these specially selected products. In addition, other projects, e.g. from developing countries, which are served by airport airlines, can be supported in this way (SDG 1 - No poverty). This could be done by purchasing products from selected local companies in order to support local micro-enterprises. Similarly, the production and subsequent consumption of healthier food is also a priority. Thus, the focus is also on nutrition (SDG 2-2.2). Thus, the consumption of healthy products from organic and regional cultivation leads to improved health and increased sustainability in both an ecological and ethical sense (Smith-Spangler, 2012, p. 366).

With regard to the sale of goods, three different options can again be identified. However, the first two possibilities cannot be reconciled with the principles of this work, as they involve both an increased supply and a reduced supply. This is therefore not in line with this work, as on the one hand a smaller choice does not correspond to nudging, as it would reduce the choice, and on the other hand a smaller offer will mean that less can be sold, which is not compatible with the CSR approach. The last form retains the current offer, so that the sale corresponds to the basic assumptions of nudging and the CSR management concept.

All these measures can be managed on the basis of SDGs 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure and SDG 12 - Sustainable Consumption and Production. Production and consumption should be changed in a long-term and profoundly sustainable way. Therefore, innovations must be used and infrastructures adapted.

SDG 3 - Health and well-being

The second SDG considered in this paper is SDG 3 “Health and Well-Being” (SDG 3). This approach is based on five aspects in terms of starting points or solutions to the problem. Diseases and drugs are named as the origin of the problems, while nutrition, exercise and nature are the levers that can be used to solve the problems. In the following discussion, however, the nutrition approach must be deleted, as this branch has already been dealt with in chapter 7.1.1.

There are three options for combating diseases: control, prevention and treatment. Measures for containment and prevention are located in the same areas of action (Kickbusch & Franz, 2017, p. 13.). In this context, nudges should aim in particular at the recreation rooms, the eating area and the sanitary facilities, in order to both prevent and contain diseases in these places. In these places, the main concern is the prevailing hygiene. Thus, the nudges developed in relation to diseases are to be used to improve hygiene and thus minimise the spread of pathogens (SDG 3-3.3).

The second pillar to be considered concerns drug use. In this respect, a distinction must be made between legal and illegal drugs. In this paper, only legal drugs will be discussed, as no forensic investigation has been carried out here. The focus will therefore be on drugs with and without a certificate, as well as alcohol and tobacco (SDG 3-3.5). According to the German Head Office for Addiction Issues, the consumption of these substances can be (DHS) three motives can be attributed to the consumption of these substances. For example, this approach focuses on the problem of relaxation and the fight against fear and boredom with the help of legal drugs (DHS, 2020, p. 5.). The problem of addictions is deliberately omitted, as the structures at the airport are not designed for the care of addicted persons and this care or cure is not part of the solution to this work. The nudges created therefore focus on the aspects of relaxation, fear and boredom.

The next aspect is that of movement. This is the subject of a long-term study at the University of Karlsruhe. The study proves that sport helps people to lead a healthier life. This approach can also be integrated with the help of a nudge at the airport (Sportinstitut KIT, 2017). It is assumed that tourists do not want to travel on in a sweat and that this is not pleasant for other travellers, especially in the plane itself, because of the odour. This is also reflected in the statistical analysis of the Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Investigation (BFU), according to which 175 incidents (2016 still 228 incidents) of annoying odour on board were reported in 2018 (2018, p. 9). A distinction is therefore made between sports activities involving little effort and sports activities involving a lot of effort. Sweat-inducing activities are omitted due to the problem already explained. Nudges, for example, are to be used to make low-exertion sports facilities available to passengers both unconsciously and consciously.

The fifth and last pillar is nature. According to the University of East Anglia, it should help to improve both health and well-being. In this case, nature means a mix of plants and fresh air (2018). However, the fresh air aspect cannot be treated with nudges in a closed security area. The pillar of nature, in this sense the plants, should be made useable in the waiting and recreation rooms with nudges. In this way, any problems that may arise, for example through “drugs”, are to be solved with the help of nature.

The approaches described are supported by SDG 9 and SDG 12 in such a way that consumption and production, but also the infrastructure, are designed in such a way that sustainability is given priority.

SDG 6 - Clean water and sanitation

The third SDG to be considered is SDG 6 - “Clean Water and Sanitation” (SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation). The measures focus on water and paper consumption, hygiene, drinking water and the associated recycling. According to the German Federal Association for Energy and Water Management, the greatest water consumption is found in toilets. Per capita consumption here in Germany averages 34.29 litres per day, while only 5.04 litres are attributed to the use of drinking water for drinking and eating. For this reason, it is important to reduce the water consumption of toilets. In addition, 15.24 litres of water per person per day are used to wash hands in Germany (BDEW Bundesverband der Energie- und Wasserwirtschaft e. V., (a,b) 2019). At this point, SDG 3 can be included, as hand washing also minimises pathogens. After going to the toilet and washing hands, the hands are dried. Here, too, the statistics show high values with rising tendencies. According to a study by the WWF, 15kg of tissue paper per capita were used in Germany in 2019. In addition to paper towels, this hygiene paper also includes toilet paper. The European average is 13kg per year, this consumption is four times higher than the global average. In 2019, 22 billion rolls of toilet paper were consumed in Europe (calculated in conventional toilet paper rolls) (WWF, 2020). Nevertheless, this paper deliberately refrains from using hand air dryers, since a study by the University of Leeds, among others, showed that a large number of bacteria and viruses can be transmitted in these devices (Best, Parnell & Wilcox, 2014, pp. 204-205).

Once the wipes have been used, they must be recycled. However, there is the problem of infrastructure. One of the main problems with tissue paper, which is found in the front area of the sanitary facilities near the taps, is that this tissue paper cannot be recycled in conventional paper waste. In this respect, it is therefore necessary to obtain the tissue paper from sources that use secondary materials, i.e. to make the product from already recycled material. The issue of recycling in this area is therefore also being addressed in order to increase the recyclable proportion of tissue paper (Federal Environment Agency, 2020).

In addition, the focus is on the sale of drinking water. This must be guaranteed at all times. At present, plastic drinks bottles are increasingly being banned at airports and replaced by Tetra Pak containers and glass bottles, such as at San Francisco airport (San Francisco Airport, 2020). Here, too, the problem of recycling is at the forefront in order to make the best possible use of the waste produced and reuse it.

Imported water is another problem in the sale of drinking water. Cross-continental water imports and exports have led, among other things, to the loss of 50% of the world’s river systems, bogs and lakes. The sale of regional or even tap water should therefore be integrated into the work (WWF, 2016). Reusable deposit systems, in combination with regional and tap water, can help to increase sustainability at the airport while ensuring a sufficient supply of drinking water. For example, a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PVC) on behalf of the German Environmental Aid Association (Deutsche Umwelthilfe e.V.) and the German Environmental Aid (DUH) Umweltschutz Service GmbH showed that a PET returnable bottle or cup system produces 40 % less raw materials and 50 % less climate-damaging greenhouse gases for 1,000 litres of contents compared to conventional plastic bottles when transport distances of less than 100 km are used for the use and cleaning of the containers (PricewaterhouseCoopers AG WPG, 2011, p. 32).

This SDG is also linked to SDG 9 and SDG 12. In this way, consumption and production, with the help of the necessary infrastructure, contribute to increasing sustainability with the approaches outlined.

SDG 7 - Affordable and clean energy

The last SDG to be considered is SDG 7 “Affordable and clean energy”. Even if the majority of the energy consumption in airport operations cannot be changed by nudging, it is still possible to find an approach to use the SDG without infrastructural changes. This should reduce the electricity consumption of passengers. According to the German Federal Association of Energy and Water Management (BDEW), this has risen continuously from 1990 to 2018, both in private households and in industry (in Germany). This is explained above all by the increased use of mobile devices such as mobile phones, laptops etc. (2019 b). In particular, the use and recharging of these devices should be integrated into the nudges. In addition, all light sources in rooms accessible to passengers should be considered as a matter of principle.

An excursus is needed to complete the catalogue of measures with the help of data collection. Based on the data, an overall concept can thus be drawn up in which the nudges are incorporated.

For example, it is of great importance for the companies to not only respond to the passengers, but also to the employees. In this way, sustainable behaviour can also be anchored more deeply. It also makes it possible to involve employees more in the development of new CSR measures, as they know the processes taking place at the airport even better than employees who are not involved in them, even if their experience is insufficient. “Experiences are also brought in, but no measures are built and implemented purely on experience”. In order to make use of this experience of employees, they should be involved in meetings to prevent siloed thinking. “Discussion of the ideas collected with all managers of the company in order to generate a target process”.

In addition, there should also be continuous cooperation with airport stakeholders in general. “More linkages between the different stakeholders are needed to find common goals”. A special focus is placed on SDG 17, which should be used to make cooperation with customers, in this case airlines, at the airport more sustainable. “We do many cooperation projects and always try to take the airlines into account”. In this way, access rights at airports could also be softened. In this way, new sustainable agreements can be made between the businesses located at the airports and the airport itself, which benefits both parties. “If you only consider that the airport does not always have direct access rights, it does not do a lot of things itself”. Stakeholders in the immediate vicinity can also be involved in selling products via the airport, be it food or services.

One possibility for such cooperation was particularly emphasised by the respondents, namely the circular economy. This is a further development of the former Linear Economy. Since the resources of this world are finite, all waste is brought into a new system in order to reuse the resources it contains. This model aims to build natural, social and economic capital (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2020). This will allow the entire waste management system at the airport to continue to be used. This can be applied, for example, to the generation of electricity and heat, but also to so-called bio-fuels: “making bio-fuels from waste products and incorporating them into a new cycle”.

Another relevant issue that cannot be addressed with the help of the Nudges concerns legal regulations. These cannot be changed directly by airports, but nevertheless play a major role in sustainable development “Legal anchors of the Federal Government and EU always important to observe”. For this reason, companies are constantly coming up against limits. Environmental and social standards cost money, which drives up the price compared to non-sustainable competing products. “If the EU no longer incorporates sustainability, we will therefore repeatedly come up against certain limits”. According to the German Institute for Economic Order (DIW), change is also needed in this context. This is already partly visible, which is due to the Corona crisis in 2020. The effects of this pandemic cannot be fully explained in this paper because, as already mentioned, this paper was written during this period. Nevertheless, this crisis should be included in the work, as it will change and, above all, influence the economy. According to the DIW, it already became clear during the global economic crisis of 2008/2009 that a climate-oriented economic policy not only brings positive change in the short term, but also leads to economic growth, more jobs and climate-friendly development in the long term (Kröger et al., 2020, p. 1). In addition, the data collection showed that companies should reorient themselves environmentally consciously in order to gain or retain market share in the long term. “Private companies should expect cost changes already now” “They should therefore start to reorient production already now”.

All these points speak in favour of supporting nudging measures and introducing an improved sustainability concept at the airport.



Due to the current situation in the first quarter of 2020, there is a growing political tendency towards sustainability. As predicted by the DIW study, this can promote and improve economic growth, innovation and the environment in the long term. In addition, declining confidence in economic players, fear of the future and mistrust of environmentally conscious behaviour in the economy show that the topic is highly topical and has become an integral part of economic discussions. In addition, the tourism industry itself, in the form of the WTTC, points to the problem of sustainability and is already trying to develop measures to ensure that the 1.8 billion tourists expected to take sustainable holidays in 2030 can enjoy them.

This shows that it is essential to address the issue of sustainability in the tourism industry. In this work, an attempt was made to develop a concept to increase sustainability at the airport. Due to the general conditions at airports, the legal regulations and the better measurability in a further work, the customer-side air sector of the airport was examined. Selected studies and various interviews with experts from the scientific, governmental and economic sectors were used to develop a comprehensive view of the topic. Already known problems of the studies were compared with the experiences of the experts in order to develop a holistic concept based on nudging and the Sustainable Development Goals. Due to the Covid 19 pandemic, however, it was difficult to find enough interview partners for meaningful data. These data should therefore be monitored critically. Nevertheless, these interviews also revealed possible weaknesses and problems of the nudging approach in connection with the SDGs. These problems were discussed in an excursus.

In summary, therefore, after a thorough analysis of the results, the elaboration of the catalogue of measures and a critical appraisal of the work, the three research questions can be answered.

With regard to the first research question, it can be stated that sustainability can basically be increased with the help of the Sustainable Development Goals by including nudges in the airside area of the airport. This is due to the fact that the SDGs address many of the problems that arise at airports. This is shown by the combination of the interpretation of the results in chapter 6.2. and the preparation of the nudges in chapter 7.1. In these two chapters, problems of sustainability at the airport were highlighted, which were addressed with the help of the developed nudges. In addition, these nudges were again provided with individual sub-goals, so that a clearer definition of the objectives of the sustainability measures can be shown. However, these measures have so far only led to increased sustainability in theory and must be tested in practice in further work in the form of experiments. Moreover, the urgency of this sustainability management can be further increased by the Covid 19 pandemic, as this does not rule out a new climate-oriented policy.

In addition, the data collection with regard to the second research question showed that the nudges developed were not sufficient to address the major sustainability problems of an airport. Noise, CO2 emissions, electricity and heat can only be changed to a small extent, if at all, with the nudges. Nevertheless, a Nudge has been developed for this purpose. In view of these problems, major changes have to be made, which are more cost-intensive and also require changes to the infrastructure. The second research question is therefore answered as follows: The Sustainable Development Goals can increase sustainability at the airport by means of nudging, but do not offer a solution to the major environmental problems. As formulated in the interviews: They have no influence on the powerful levers of an airport. However, nudges developed on the basis of SDGs can bring about change, especially in the social sphere, as they focus more on regionalism. This is particularly important for a company like an airport, as it is primarily dependent on regional stakeholders.

With reference to the third and last research question, this can also be answered positively. The nudges should be linked to the basic pillars of the CSR management approach. However, it should be noted that during the early stages of the use of nudges, philanthropic measures must also be used to cushion inefficiencies and thus still increase sustainability, which is the main focus.

Further research should be conducted to round off this work. As already mentioned, the topics of the digression should be incorporated into a more comprehensive concept for the remaining airport areas in subsequent work. In addition, the measures developed must be examined in practice, preferably with experiments on site, in order to investigate whether the nudges actually increase sustainability and thus the defined sustainability goals can be achieved.

In conclusion, it can be said that sustainability at the airport, especially in the social sphere, i.e. sustainability with regard to regional stakeholders, can be increased with the help of the nudges and SDGs, while environmental problems can only be tackled to a small extent. Therefore, it is mainly the regional stakeholders who benefit from the increased sustainability, who are included in the nudges based on local or regional products. Nevertheless, these measures can improve sustainability, at least on a small scale, and above all influence passenger behaviour towards a healthier and more sustainable life. Furthermore, a positive economic impact on the company can be demonstrated without infrastructural changes causing high costs. The results of this work can thus lead to an efficient increase in sustainability, which is accompanied by economic advantages.