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The rise of the 'invisible ethical': Why consumers want sustainability throughout the supply chain

Niamh Michail

By Niamh Michail+

24-Mar-2016
Last updated on 24-Mar-2016 at 16:03 GMT2016-03-24T16:03:40Z

Is the ethical consumer really after non-GMO, palm oil-free glycerine based solvent in their food....or is a cup of Fairtrade tea enough?  © iStock / Anetlanda
Is the ethical consumer really after non-GMO, palm oil-free glycerine based solvent in their food....or is a cup of Fairtrade tea enough? © iStock / Anetlanda

From non-GMO glycerine-based solvents to sustainably sourced hydrocolloids, more and more companies are seeking ethical certification for 'invisible' ingredients – but what’s fuelling this demand when consumers probably don’t even notice?

Earlier this month, Polynt, one of the largest EU producers of glycerine-based solvent triacetin commonly used in food and confectionery, announced it had become the first European chemical company to have secured non-GMO certification. This marked the second sustainable change to its supply chain after it stopped sourcing glycerine from palm oil and committed to using rapeseed oil.

Food additives are not the exception to the rule’

Chris Beff, general manager of Polynt UK, said the decision to seek independent third party certification from Cert ID Europe came as many of its customers, particularly in the confectionery sector, had stepped up demands for non-GMO ingredients across the supply chain.

Richard Werran, managing director of Cert ID Europe, said: “This move by Polynt demonstrates the shift towards a completely transparency food chain that is effective at all levels and that food additives are not the exception to the rule for consumers demanding non-GMO foods.”

According to Graham Mitchell, executive director of the ProTerra Foundation, a non-profit organisation which certifies companies for sustainable and traceable agricultural commodities, the rise in demand for invisible ethical ingredients is linked to the clean label movement. “ProTerra has noticed a rise in plant-based foods and companies manufacturing products with shorter ingredient lists.

"This focus allows companies to take a real interest in the quality and supply of their critical ingredients. We have today companies milling maize into various ingredients - glucose syrup or lactic acid - demanding certification, as well as companies producing or using coconut milk and fat, almond paste, hazelnut, oats and rice derived products,” he told FoodNavigator.

Meanwhile Amarjit Sahota, president of Organic Monitor and organiser of the Sustainable Foods Summit  held this June in Amsterdam, pointed to another emerging trend: companies developing their own in-house sustainable sourcing programmes for ingredients, such as acacia gum, soya beans and vanilla.

Parallel to this is the diversification of existing certification schemes for established ingredients such as palm oil. Companies can choose to source palm oil using the GreenPalm system, RSPO Next or the Palm Oil Innovation Group. For soya they have the choice between RTS, ProTerra or Danube Soya.

So how far do companies actually have to go in order to satisfy the ethically-minded consumer - is there a percentage 'cut-off point', beyond which a product’s claims are no longer credible? 

This really varies depending on the ethical issue in question, according to Sahota.

In terms of percentage ingredients, organic is by far the strictest standard for sustainability schemes. This is also partly because all agricultural products can be certified organic, whereas other schemes, like Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance, have standards that are devised on a crop to crop basis.”

Organic products may require up to 95% of the agricultural ingredients to be from organic agriculture while for fair trade this could be as low as 20% for composite or processed food products – although this varies between certification schemes and countries. Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certification are for single ingredients meaning they are rarely seen on processed products.

But is it really worth the pains a company has to go through to obtain an ethical certification for an ingredient that is not even on most consumers’ radar? For Mitchell, it is an opportunity to show they are frontrunners engaging in active CSR and climate change policy, and to avoid being 'caught out' later down the line.

This is a question of brand reputation and a company’s promise to its consumers. In most cases knowing the source and ethical standards of your processor is just good business, and due diligence. There is much more transparency required and many consumers today expect brands to be responsible. Discovery otherwise can lead to a very visible negative response for a company and brand.”

A step ahead of the game

Pushing for ethical sustainability throughout the supply chain could also be a way for companies to preemptively avoid a future backlash against a single ingredient.

Chris Beff said Polynt’s decision to go certified non-GMO would mean the company would remain a step ahead of its competitors’ game by “developing products that exceed market demands at the centre of its processes”.

Palm oil for instance used to be a relatively innocuous ingredient that consumers paid little attention to before – in part because prior to the change in EU labelling laws, manufacturers could list it as vegetable oil – but also because stories linking palm oil plantations to deforestation, forest fires and a loss of biodiversity were never far from the headlines.

Nevertheless Mintel analyst Julia Buech says companies cannot necessarily rely on ethical claims alone to pull in consumers.

Sustainability will continue to be a very relevant issue that companies need to consider, with consumers increasingly expecting companies to act ethically on their behalf and to be transparent about their proceedings.

“[But] ethical claims have limited drawing power, and will better show to be an advantage when linked with other, stronger marketing messages, such as premium or lifestyle claims,” she said.

Consumers' ethical concerns also tend to be quite region-specific, at least for finished products. Mintel data show ethical animal claims, through certifying bodies such as Beter Leven (Better Life), Weidemelk (Pasture Milk) and free-range claims, are most popular in the Netherlands while Germany tops the tables for organic claims, with 23% of all product launches in Germany organic.

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