Simplicity and consistency urged for ethical food labels

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Existing ethical and environmental food labels are poorly understood by consumers, and even those seeking them out struggle to understand them, consumer group Which? has found.

Which? has conducted a lot of work in the past about barriers to healthy eating, but as sustainable food choices are rising up the agenda it realised it would be useful to get a better understanding of that consumers make of the issues.

Sue Davies, chief policy advisor at Which? pointed out that the UK government has also said it intends to introduce measures on honest labelling over the origins of food and environmental impact. She told that the new report will be circulated to government, industry and other stakeholders to help inform the debate.

The research was conducted in three stages: A qualitative hall test gauge level of understanding; a series of focus groups involving people who said they sometimes make more environmentally-friendly or ethical choices; and a face-to-face survey with a small sample of people representative of the UK population to recognise on recognition of labelling and their views of its importance.

“Overall, our research indicates that while sustainability issues are not a priority for many consumers at the moment compared to issues such as taste, safety and price, many people think they are important and if presented in a way that is more meaningful on labels, there is a willingness to take them into account.”

Seven out of ten people said they would pay more attention to the environmental impact of foods they buy if the labels were clearer.

Existing labelling schemes were seen to be “generally not well known, poorly understood and on the whole do not help consumers understand how different aspects of sustainability have been addressed”.

Six principles

Which? has identified a set of six principles that should underscore the development of labelling schemes, based on consumer views:

  • Simplicity: Clear, short messages
  • Impact: Easily noticeable and understandable labels
  • Consistency: Avoiding too many different schemes or different label positions
  • Coherence: Explore how issues can be combined into a composite label
  • Evidence: Ensure the criteria reflect scientific evidence available
  • Independence: Ensure schemes are independent

Working together?

Labelling over sustainability issues can provide differentiation to food producers on supermarket shelves, but Davis told “We would hope food companies could work together, as they message was that people do want consistency rather than having to hunt around.”

She added that there are lessons to be learned from the development of nutritional labelling over the last 20 years, which has progressed from nutritional fact panels to the current heated debates over front-of-pack labelling schemes.

Sustainability labelling is currently “early stage, but it’s an important issue”.

Davis added that where consumers may be bewildered by all the information available today, when the researchers started to talk to them about it in more detail they were more open to it.

The Which? report Making Sustainable Food Choices Easier is available online here​.

Related topics Market Trends Sustainability

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