Sustainability labels don't ensure higher food sales

Sustainability labels don't ensure higher food sales

European consumers not driven to spend food dollars on products sporting sustainability labels.

SUSTAINABILITY labels on food products do not drive consumers' food choices, according to a pan-European study by researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark and the European Food Information Council in Belgium.

The study, published in Food Policy, examined the understanding and use of sustainability labels on food products by consumers from the U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Poland.

Over the past three decades, a number of private and public efforts have begun to communicate sustainability-related information about food to consumers. In fact, the report points out that more than 432 labeling schemes are available in 246 countries, 147 of which include standards for food or beverages.

Often, the growth in labels and the accompanying information is interpreted as implying successful sales, but instead, it may actually increase confusion among consumers and limit the use of the labels.

According to the research findings, consumers, for the most part, have a generally high understanding of sustainability, but the terminology and definition varied among the six countries.

When asked to define sustainability in their own words, respondents from the U.K., France, Germany and Spain associated the term with something environmentally and ecologically friendly and preserving natural resources. On the other hand, Swedish consumers refer to sustainability as the shelf life of food, and Polish consumers linked it to maintaining a standard of living or "sustainable" economic output or growth.

Furthermore, when consumers were asked to pick from a list of 18 items related to sustainability, the items chosen most often were linked to their environmental impact on land and water versus working conditions in the food industry, child labor or the world food supply (Table).

Looking more closely at the research results, certain sustainability food labels were widely understood among consumers. Participants correctly identified the meaning of the carbon footprint and animal welfare labels. These labels were understood even among consumers who indicated that they had never seen the label.

In contrast, the Rainforest Alliance label was the most misunderstood, with consumers believing that it stands for protecting wildlife, which is not correct.

When looking at demographics, women were more concerned about sustainability and used the labels more than men, but there was little difference in the level of understanding between genders. Additionally, older consumers had a higher level of concern but a lower level of understanding.

Social class had no effect on the level of concern or understanding, although the higher class did indicate using the labels more frequently.

A higher education contributed to a greater level of understanding and use of the labels, but not a higher degree of concern.

Last, the most surprising result was that having children did not influence the use, concern or understanding of the labels.

Across the six countries, individuals from Poland and Sweden had the lowest level of concern with sustainability, while consumers from Sweden and the U.K. used the labels the most.

Still, despite the level of understanding, the actual use of sustainability food labels on the whole is limited in Europe. When tested against nutritional value and different price levels, sustainability does not have a meaningful impact on food purchasing decisions across all product categories tested.

"Most consumers have heard about the term 'sustainability,' but the concept remains abstract and diffuse and, therefore, difficult to deal with," explained professor Klaus Grunert with the Aarhus department of business administration. "When asked, consumers generally express concern about sustainability issues and would like to be informed about them. However, in the context of food and drink purchases, sustainability issues are not a priority."

According to the research, time constraints, perceived price differences and a lack of detailed understanding of the information are the main barriers to overcome in order for sustainability to be included in the food decision-making process.


Concern about sustainability issues



Std. dev.

Use of child labor in food production



Deforestation of rainforest



Starvation and malnutrition in world population



Use of pesticides in food production



Poor treatment of animals in food production



Environmental damage caused by human use of land and water



Amount of food that is wasted



Using too much of world's natural resources for food production



Poor working conditions and wages for food producers



Packaging that is not recyclable



Amount of packaging used on products



Carbon emissions caused by food production



Amount of energy used when transporting food products



Amount of energy used when cooking food products



How concerned are you personally about each of these issues? 1 = Only slightly concerned, and 7 = Extremely concerned. N = 4,408.

Source: Food Policy.


Volume:86 Issue:08

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