Despite widespread interest in sustainability issues, the labelling of products with information on environmental and ethical issues remains a low priority for consumers when compared to nutritional value and price.
A new pan-European survey backed by the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), has suggested that there are ‘considerable’ gaps in knowledge on consumer understanding, perception and attitude with respect to labelling - as well as how these may affect purchase and consumption behaviour.
The web-based study, led by Professor Klaus Grunert from Aarhus University in Denmark, investigated the meaning and relevance of sustainability for consumers in the context of food choices – finding evidence that consumers are familiar with and show concern about sustainability and social awareness issues.
“However, results show that sustainability labels are less important when shopping compared to price and nutritional value,” said the team. “This could change when sustainability issues in the context of food and drink become more prominent in the public debate, as it has happened with issues of health and nutrition.”
The team used a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods – including web based survey of consumers in six different countries and focus groups four countries.
“First of all, we found that consumers find the concept of sustainability abstract and a bit difficult to understand,” said the lead researcher. “Also the term used for sustainability in each country differs, and has different associations.”
He noted that despite such differences, most consumers in the countries surveyed associated the concept with environmental impacts from the production of food, and to a lesser extent questions surrounding ‘taking care of future generations’ and ethical aspects.
“When we look at the awareness, understanding and use of sustainability labels, we found that the awareness of these labels is relatively low,” he said – adding that awareness does change depending on what sort of label is being looked at.
“Awareness is highest for the Fairtrade label, and is lower for the three others that we investigated. That is the Rainforest Alliance, carbon footprint, and animal welfare.”
He added that another key finding of the survey is a discrepancy between concerns about sustainability in general and concern about sustainability in the food context – with consumers more concerned about sustainability in general than issues specifically regarding food production.
“When we look at use … we found that the use of those labels is relatively limited, when we compare to for example nutritional information on products,” said Grunert.
‘The debate is rolling’
“I would say that at present, sustainability issues are not central, yet, for consumers when they make an everyday food choice,” he added – noting that the situation could be compared to how aspects nutritional labelling was viewed in the past.
“That was a topic in the public debate, but did not yet play a big role in people’s food choices. That has changed and there is much more awareness of nutritional information,” Grunert said. “I think we will see a similar development with regard to sustainability information on food products.”
“The debate is rolling, and there will be more pressure both on industry and on consumers to do something about sustainability … but at the moment I think it’s fair to say that the use of that kind of information in every day food choices is fairly limited.”