Consumer concern about sustainability rarely translates into purchases, according to new research from the European Food Information Council (EUFIC).
The researchers asked more than 4,000 consumers from six European countries (UK, Spain, France, Germany, Poland and Sweden) about their understanding of sustainability issues, including their familiarity with ethical labels. The study has been published in the journal Food Policy.
They found a generally high level of concern, particularly about child labour, deforestation, malnutrition, animal welfare, pesticide use, environmental damage, and food waste. However, the concept of sustainability was more difficult to grasp than issues related to health and nutrition – and therefore lacked relevance for consumers, the researchers found.
“The results imply that sustainability labels currently do not play a major role in consumers’ food choices, and future use of these labels will depend on the extent to which consumers’ general concern about sustainability can be turned into actual behaviour,” the study’s authors wrote.
What does the Rainforest Alliance stand for?
Participants were also asked whether they recognised four different ethical labels: Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Animal Welfare and Carbon Trust. The Fairtrade label was the best-recognised, with about half of participants saying they had seen it before. Recognition was highest in the UK and lowest in Spain.
Most participants correctly identified the meaning behind three of the four labels, except for the Rainforest Alliance logo, for which a majority chose the incorrect answer, “Protecting wildlife in the rainforest”. The logo actually represents “Protecting sustainable agriculture to help farmers, while protecting the local environment”.
Few people look for ethical info…
The study suggested that consumers considered many other product attributes before sustainability issues when looking at food or drink items in the supermarket, including price, brand, quantity, nutrition, country of origin, and even cooking instructions. Ethical and environmental information were among the attributes consumers were least likely to look for, along with allergen information.
However, the authors stressed that the results do not imply there is no future for sustainability labels in Europe, just that their use is currently limited.
“In this context it is also interesting to look at the considerable country differences we found, even after controlling for differences in understanding and motivation,” they wrote.
“This shows that a high level of concern in some countries is more apt to translate into behaviour than in others. To find reasons for this is an interesting aim for future research. One perspective that could be adopted there is to look into differences in the prominence of sustainability issues on the public agenda, which could relate to salience of the concept in the mind of consumers.”
Source: Food Policy
Volume 44, February 2014, Pages 177–189 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2013.12.001
“Sustainability labels on food products: Consumer motivation, understanding and use”
Authors: Klaus G. Grunert, Sophie Hieke, Josephine Wills