Sustainability labelling is not understood by consumers

Shoppers don’t care about sustainability when it comes to making food choices, according to new research.

Professor Dr Klaus G. Grunert – MAPP Centre for Research on Customer Relations in the Food Sector, Aarhus University (Denmark), looked at the relationship between consumer motivation, understanding and use of sustainability labels on food products.

The results imply that sustainability labels currently do not play a major role in consumers’ food choices, and future use of these labels will depend on the extent to which consumers’ general concern about sustainability can be turned into actual behaviour.

According to Professor Grunert, the more consumers are concerned about sustainability issues with regard to food production, the higher is also the level of use of sustainability labels. However, the effects are not strong and the low level of use is not due to a correspondingly low level of concern about sustainability issues related to food.

He said that, on the contrary, when asked about the level of concern with issues related to sustainability in food production in general terms, there is generally a moderately high level of concern. However, this level of concern does not translate into corresponding levels of use.

Lack of use can also be related to lack of understanding. Sustainability is an abstract and diffuse term and consumers may have difficulty to relate to it. Our results show that most consumers associate it with aspects of environmental protection, and to a lesser extent to ethical issues that are also part of the broader sustainability concept. The study also found that understanding around carbon foot print was low.

“We found a number of demographic effects as well. Women are more concerned about sustainability and use labels more often than men, but there is no difference in level of understanding. Older people have higher levels of concern, but lower levels of understanding and use. Higher social classes report more use of sustainability labels, but social class has no effect on level of concern or understanding. Having children has, perhaps surprisingly, no influence. Higher education leads to higher levels of understanding and use, but not to higher levels of concern.”

The research was carried out online among consumers in the UK, Sweden, France, Germany, Spain and Poland.

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