European study: Sustainability labels not a priority

by Jeff Gelski
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AARHUS, DENMARK — European consumers may have heard of such labels as Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance, but that does not mean they will buy products with those labels. Results from a study of European consumers implied sustainability labels do not play a major role in consumers’ food choice.

The study, which appeared in the February issue of Food Policy, included an on-line survey of 4,408 total respondents from the countries of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Poland. Klaus G. Grunert, a professor at Aarhus University, led the study. He received funding from the European Food Information Council, which receives funding from the food industry.

“Most consumers have heard about the term ‘sustainability,’ but the concept remains abstract and diffuse and therefore difficult to deal with,” Dr. Grunert said. “When asked, consumers generally express concern about sustainability issues and would like to be informed about them. However, in the context of food and drink purchases, sustainability issues are not a priority.”

The survey asked questions about four labels: Fair Trade International, Rainforest Alliance, Carbon Footprint and Animal Welfare. The respondents were asked to rate self-reported use on a 7-point scale for 16 different types of information on food packages. The endpoints were “never” at No. 1 and “always” at No. 7.

Understanding of the concept behind the labeling scheme was uniformly highest for Fair Trade. On average, women were more concerned about sustainability and used sustainability labels more often than men although there was no difference in the level of the understanding of sustainability among men and women. Whether or not people had children had no influence. People with higher education tended to have higher levels of understanding and use but not higher levels of concern. Younger people tended to have a higher level of understanding of the term sustainability.

Out of six product categories, consumers showed concern about sustainability issues for coffee and ready meals but not as much concern for issues for chocolate, ice cream, breakfast cereal and soft drinks.

Comparing countries, the United Kingdom had the highest level of understanding while Poland had the lowest. On average, U.K. consumers correctly identified more than half of the four sustainability labels in the study. The majority of Spanish and Polish consumers identified barely more than one label.

Also evident were different ideas about what sustainability means. Respondents in Germany, France, Spain and the United Kingdom linked it mostly to protection of the environment. Poles linked sustainability to the more general issue of maintaining a standard of living. Many Swedes mentioned the sell-by date of a product.

“Lack of use can also be related to lack of understanding,” the study said. “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.”

According to the European Food Information Council, sustainability in the future might play a role in food choices if the sustainability issues become more prominent in public debate, such as what happened with health and nutrition issues.
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