Sustainability labels on food need improvement, warns WUR research

February 07, 2022 — Sustainability labels and ratings can have a positive impact on consumer acceptance and awareness, but they do not yet promote more sustainable consumer behavior.

This is the claim of a literature review, “Effective labeling of sustainable products” published by Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and food quality.

The research posits that a more significant impact could occur by combining labels and labeling systems, linking them to other behavioral factors, and emphasizing other benefits such as health.

He also notes that encouraging consumers to change their eating habits is a factor.

According to WUR, information on consumer behavior “is an essential element in making sustainable options more accessible”.

Wageningen’s research focuses on how sustainability information on packaging influences consumer choices and possible behavioral mechanisms to support behavior change.

“Most studies show that labeling has some impact compared to no labelling. Overall, labeling accounts for 18% of consumer acceptance. Using a fair trade logo seems to have the biggest positive effect,” says WUR.

“It’s also effective in communicating the health benefits alongside the environmental and sustainability benefits. Consumers are more likely to buy a product with a combined environmental, fair trade and climate neutral certification than a product with individual labels.Research posits that combining labels, linking them to other behavioral factors, and emphasizing other benefits such as health might have a greater impact.

misunderstanding and trust
The research also notes that traffic light labels (like green-yellow-red health score) make it easier for consumers to choose a sustainable option. On the other hand, combining labels seems to be a more efficient approach than using individual labels, since having multiple separate labels can be confusing.

It seems that consumers don’t always fully understand or trust labels. The price and origin of the product are often the factors that determine whether or not a consumer buys a sustainable product.

Sometimes consumers say they’re making a sustainable choice, even when they’re not, so their intentions and actual behavior aren’t necessarily aligned, adds WUR.

“The success of a label depends on its clarity and recognition. The clearer a label, the more trustworthy it is, which in turn increases the willingness to pay for it. But labels cannot be overloaded with information,” they say.

“Sustainability must be clearly communicated and relevant to the buyer. It is effective in showing that consumer choices have an impact, and in specifying the real benefits of sustainable choices, such as the number of bees on a farm.

The literature review focused on environmental and social well-being, animal welfare, consumers, food/nutrition and communication. It relied solely on Western literary sources, with 42% of articles from Western Europe.

Edited by Gaynor Selby

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