How many labels can we put on food?


Posted by James Wheatley

Tesco are to start printing the carbon footprint of their milk on the label, calling it an awareness raising measure. Since carbon footprint has traditionally been one of the least well-understood responsible issues among consumers, it’s tempting to uncritically accept ideas like this as a good thing.

On the other hand, perhaps we should consider how consumers actually react to responsible cues on food labels. Our research indicates that even consumers who are responsibly motivated fail to act responsibly when they make food purchases. Consumers are already confronted with an array of responsible cues on food labels; organic, Marine Stewardship, Fairtrade, Freedom Food, recycled packaging, and so on, and so on. In most cases, these responsible cues do not form a conscious part of purchase deliberation. We know this, because our research specifically compared what people say they do with what they actually do.

An important reason for the gap between sentiment and action is the confusion caused by the number of responsible cues that exist. There’s too much choice, and not enough clarity about what any of them mean. Yet another symbol is unlikely to improve matters. It may help build awareness of the issue among the responsibly-motivated consumers who are pre-disposed to listen to such messages, but our experience to date suggests that it will only prompt conscious action among a tiny minority of them.

And even if all consumers were engaged with all the ‘single-issue’ labelling schemes - such as Tesco’s carbon footprint label - how are they supposed to choose between them? Is it more important to buy a product with a low carbon footprint than one that says Freedom Food? Does Fairtrade trump organic? Does a truly responsible product have all of them? If it did, would there be room for anything else on the label?

It may be time to retreat from single-issue labelling schemes, and think instead about how we could offer consumers an overall responsibility score that allows them to directly compare products. Although it does not yet offer product-level comparison, Wal-Mart’s progress towards its ‘Sustainability Index’ shows that the world’s biggest retailer is taking the idea seriously. The flower-shaped ‘multi-criteria sustainability label’ proposed by Sustain is another example of an integrated label, which could offer product-level comparisons. Such approaches may have problems of their own, but when it comes to driving consumer behaviour it may stand a better chance of success than a proliferation of responsible labels that consumers can’t directly compare and find difficult to understand.

Tags:  responsible labelling sustainability tesco carbon-footprint

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