Logos currently used on food labels include organic symbols, the Fairtrade mark, sustainable sourcing stamps, carbon footprint indicators… and many other schemes developed by industry players to demonstrate better practices.
Speakers at last week’s CIAA Congress in Brussels were split about how valuable the proliferation of labels is to people actually choosing products. Even though many of the logos are supported by a strict set or standards or code, the consumer may not be totally aware of what they stand for.
Christine Cros, head of the eco-design and sustainable consumption department at the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) said: “Today there are too many labels. Consumers don’t understand what logos mean. Some are bad and some are good.”
But Annemieke Wijn, a board member of Rainforest Alliance, which allows forms adhering to its criteria on conserving biodiversity and ensuring sustainable livelihoods to use its frog-shaped seal, does not agree.
She said: “The issue of multiple labels is not such an issue for consumers, only those who write about them.”
Highly specific labels should be available for consumers who are very aware and want to support the underlying principals, in her view. “If they want the details they should have them.”
But for consumers with a general desire to buy more ethical products but less focus on specifics, she “doesn’t care” which of the sustainability schemes they pick.
The action gap
Recent figures from TNS indicate that although 75 per cent of consumers said they would buy greener goods even if they were more expensive, in the last month only 17 per cent actually had.
This shows there is a considerable gap between what people say and what they do.
Amongst the reasons for lack of action given by Laura Degallaix of the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC) was that they cannot easily find green products – and they can even be misled by industry claims and greenwash.
Other reasons cited were lack of trust in government and industry; not knowing whether their action will make a difference; not knowing what action to take; and the costs of acting.
Eco-label opt out
In July, the European Commission included processed food in its proposal for an updated EU-wide voluntary Ecolabel scheme, on the grounds that“food production has been highlighted as having one of the greatest environmental impacts17 in terms of production and consumption”.
It proposed the label for processed foods, only in regard to processing, transport and packaging – and not the raw material.
In general, the congress speakers were resistant to bundling in food with other consumer goods bearing the label.
Pekka Pesonsen, secretary general of COPA-COGECA, called it “simplistic and fragmented, and not good for food”.
Moreover, the rapid changing of recipes, formulation and sourcing would make the system incompatible with some of the facets of modern food provision.