Combined sustainability labelling systems more effective than single labels

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Sustainability Label Fair trade

Sustainability labels and classifications, such as organic, fair trade and animal welfare, can have a positive impact on consumer acceptance and can raise awareness, but they are yet to actually drive more sustainable consumer behaviour, according to a literature review published by Wageningen University & Research and commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality.

Instead, in its review called ‘Effective labelling of sustainable products’​, Wageningen suggests greater impact could be achieved by combining labels and labelling systems, linking them to other drivers of behaviour and emphasising other benefits such as health.

Consumers are more likely to buy a product with combined environmental, fair trade and climate-neutral certification than one with individual labels, it revealed. Traffic-light labels (such as the green-yellow-red health score) also make it easier for consumers to go for a sustainable option. Combining labels seems to be a more effective approach than the use of individual labels because having multiple separate labels can cause some confusion, the review noted.

Nuance is needed, however. For example, the review revealed that a combined message including health and environmental benefits was effective, whereas a combined label of organic, fair trade and carbon neutrality was less effective in influencing consumers’ preference for sustainable bananas than a stand-alone organic or fair trade label.

Similarly, the review noted mixed results regarding consumers’ willingness to pay for organic products. Several studies, for example, report that consumers are willing to pay more for organic certified products as opposed to unlabelled products. Others don’t. Polish consumers, for instance, are not willing to pay more for organic products.

On average labels boost consumer acceptance by 18%

Most studies meanwhile show that labelling has some impact when compared to an absence of labelling, the review said. In general, labelling accounts for 18% of consumer acceptance. The use of a fair trade logo appears to have the strongest positive effect.

Although studies reveal that labels increase awareness and the willingness to pay for sustainability, there is far less evidence that they actually influence consumer behaviour. It appears that consumers don’t always fully understand or trust labels. Price and product origin are often the factors that determine whether a consumer buys a sustainable product or not. People also often claim that they make sustainable choices, even when this is not actually the case, so their intentions and actual behaviour aren’t necessarily aligned.

Preaching to the converted?

It’s also often the case that sustainability labelled products are bought by those consumers that already show habits to buy labelled products. Interestingly, the most susceptible groups are environmentally concerned female consumers, with a preference for naturalness’, the review claimed. “Well-informed and motivated consumers, especially women, are particularly responsive to labelling,” noted Wageningen Economic Researcher Marleen Onwezen. “Those with less sustainable patterns of consumption are much less influenced by the current system of labelling. Therefore, to make them more effective, labels need to be easier to understand for all types of consumers, and it’s helpful to use targeted communication for particular groups.”

Too many labels risk confusing consumers

More research is needed, she added, into what sort of combined labelling system would be most effective, because having an even greater variety of labels is not likely to lead to greater clarity. The added value of traffic-light systems should be looked into and compared to existing labels, she said. Which groups are likely to benefit? “Consumers are more trusting of labels issued by independent organisations than those issued by a supermarket, for example. So it’s important to think about the organisation behind the label.”

Sustainability is ‘difficult and abstract term for consumers’, she concluded, and groups with less sustainable consumption patterns are not reached by current labelling systems. However, labelling is “necessary for signalling sustainability of products, otherwise consumers are not aware of sustainability levels of various products and are not able to consciously choose a sustainable product over an unsustainable product… The findings carefully suggest that combined labelling systems are more effective than single labels.”

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