Europeans hungry for universal eco-label on food products amid responsible purchasing confusion and mistrust
26 Oct 2023 — A new study released today by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Food Consumer Observatory at the 2023 Future of Food Conference in Brussels, Belgium, reveals that the majority of Europeans would welcome an international eco-label on food products to help them make more sustainable purchasing decisions.
The study of 10,000 consumers across 18 European countries found that more than two-thirds would embrace a universal label signaling the environmental impact of food products. Only 13% indicated they would be unlikely to use such a label.
The packaging’s recyclability, animal welfare and pollution and use of chemicals and fertilizers were the areas that consumers most wanted to see covered by an eco-label (90%, 89% and 88%, respectively).
Meanwhile, only a third of Europeans believe their government is transparent about regulating sustainability labels on food, and two-thirds believe food brands pretend their products are more sustainable than they are.
The EU is addressing greenwashing concerns and setting higher standards for companies that make vague, partial or false claims about their ecological impact. The “Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition” directive — if approved by the European Parliament — will require brands making claims like “carbon neutral” or “green” to provide sufficient evidence.
According to Klaus Grunert, professor at Denmark’s Aarhus University and director of the EIT Food Consumer Observatory, the new research makes clear that consumers want to be better informed about the ecological footprint of their food through a universal, independent and factually substantiated label.
“Introducing such a label — and ensuring that all eco-labels include clear and concise information — could be the best way to empower consumers to make informed choices about how what they eat impacts the planet,” he says.The new research found animal welfare and packaging recyclability among consumers’ priorities for a universal eco-label.
One label to rule them all
While there are currently no internationally agreed standards for environmental sustainability labeling or agreement on what sustainable production should measure, EU authorities are discussing the development of a common eco-label.
There are no universal standards for these labels, leaving many consumers confused by the different symbols and logos on the market. The European Commission (EC) has considered a ban on the introduction of new public labeling initiatives — unless developed at the EU level — and private schemes, which do not show higher environmental ambition than those currently on the market.
“There are lots of trustworthy labels — the problem is that they cover only specific aspects of food production and only on some products, and they are often not very transparent. Different markets have different needs and consumer priorities, so finding an international consensus for what a label should consider can be challenging,” Grunert tells Food Ingredients First.
“A lack of clarity about what each eco-label means exactly, who is responsible for making sure the claims are valid and why it is better than other eco-labels has also led consumers to mistrust green claims. When combining these barriers, it is no surprise that the majority of consumers would adopt a universal eco-label for food products.”
The EC has also considered various proposals to combat misleading environmental claims, including a method to force companies to validate their claims through the Product Environmental Footprint — a methodology for calculating the ecological impact of a product over its lifetime.
Label design considerations
Another EIT Food project called Inform Pack is exploring the cross-cultural variations among consumers in terms of awareness, information, gaps, issues and attitudes toward food packaging.
For Grunert, effective packaging and labels should immediately offer clear, coherent and transparent information about sustainability.Connected technologies can provide consumers with access to detailed information to support brands’ sustainability claims.
“However, there should also be a more extensive explanation of the product’s sustainability in an online environment that is easily accessible through a QR code or similar tool,” he tells us.
“Even if consumers can use an eco-label to assess the sustainability of a product, this will not stop their subconscious inferences about the sustainability of a product based on its appearance and packaging.”
“Therefore, producers need to make sure that their product also looks sustainable in its appearance and packaging design.”
Among the 18 countries surveyed, Italy, Spain and Poland indicated the highest levels of support for a universal sustainability label, with 81%, 79% and 78% of consumers, respectively, indicating they would use it.
Czech consumers are the least supportive (45%), but in Turkey, 40% of consumers said they would be “very likely” to use it.
Consumers in Czechia, Portugal and Romania are particularly distrustful of their governments, with just 21%, 24% and 27%, respectively, saying they believe they are transparent about regulating eco-labels on food products.
The Netherlands, Germany and Ireland are the countries where people have the least trust in food brands’ green claims, with 73%, 69% and 69% of consumers, respectively, stating they believe that brands pretend their products are more sustainable than they are.
The Consumer Observatory
The research was conducted by Ipsos and released to mark the launch of the new Consumer Observatory. Part of EIT Food, the Consumer Observatory aims to bring together the breadth of consumer insights and knowledge from the world’s largest food innovation community.
“We’re at a critical juncture: the food system must be transformed if we are to succeed in ensuring it can deliver healthy, sustainable food for all,” says Sofia Kuhn, director of public engagement at EIT Food.
“In the Consumer Observatory, a crucial forum now exists to help realize this aim within Europe, putting consumer insights at the forefront. The knowledge the Consumer Observatory gathers into consumer behaviors will be available to food systems actors to help reach the shared goal of driving forward a healthier and more sustainable food system.”
By Joshua Poole
This feature is provided by Packaging Insights’s sister website, Food Ingredients First.
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