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EU Study Finds Sustainability Understanding, Concern Do Not Affect Food Purchase Choices

A study by the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), published earlier this month in the journal Food Policy, found that while European consumers have a reasonable understanding of sustainability as respecting the environment and fair treatment of present and future generations, their understanding does not extend the role of sustainability with respect to the food supply chain or of various ecolabels used on food and beverages. This finding explains another of the study’s conclusions — that consumer understanding of sustainability does not yet translate into driving food choice.

Conducted in collaboration with Aarhus University in Denmark, the study explored consumer understanding of sustainability; food ecolabels such as Fair Trade, Animal Welfare, Rainforest Alliance and Carbon Footprint; information search behavior and food choice. A nationally representative survey was carried out in six countries (Poland, Sweden, the UK, France, Germany and Spain), along with focus groups in the latter four countries.

The research examined consumer understanding, motivation and use of sustainability-related information in the context of food and beverages. Consumer understanding of the environmental aspects of the topic is generally high; participants in the UK, France, Germany and Spain predominantly associate sustainability with being ecologically friendly by preserving resources and maintaining the balance of nature. Interestingly, Swedish consumers referred to the shelf life of foods, while Polish respondents placed more importance on maintaining a certain standard of living and ‘sustainable’ economic output/growth.

While understanding and concern are generally high, the study found they do not play a major role in food choice. And while younger people are more likely to use environmental and ethical labels when choosing food, sustainability had no broad, meaningful impact on food choice when tested against nutritional value and price differences in a conjoint study. The researchers pointed to time constraints, perceived price differences and a lack of familiarity with the information sources as the main barriers for including sustainability into the decision-making process.

“Most consumers have heard about the term ‘sustainability’ but the concept remains abstract and diffuse and therefore difficult to deal with,” explains Aarhus University professor Klaus Grunert. “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.”

Consumer familiarity with ecolabels was generally low but varied significantly across the countries analyzed in the study. Understanding and trust was uniformly highest for the Fair Trade label, compared to the Rainforest Alliance logo, the Carbon Footprint and the Animal Welfare scheme. While on average UK consumers correctly identified more than half of the four labels shown, the majority of Spanish and Polish consumers barely identified more than one label. Qualitative insights reveal a considerable amount of scepticism towards quality seals, coupled with the desire for (more) trustworthy labelling, information and education on sustainability-related topics.

High concern does not translate into food choice

Concern with environmental and ethical issues is reasonably high among European consumers and they would like to see a more widespread use of all four labels analysed. Sustainability is less of a concern for consumers when considering specific products. Out of six food categories (chocolate, coffee, ice cream, breakfast cereals, ready meals and soft drinks), consumers only showed concern about sustainability for coffee and ready meals. Adding to these insights on consumer motivation, results show a clear favor towards information at the point of purchase. Respondents said the top places they would like to see sustainability-related information are in-store (labels on-pack, in the aisle or on the shelf), followed by online sources and on TV in shows and ads.

The researchers said that while ‘sustainability’ remains more difficult to grasp and therefore less likely to be relevant in consumers’ immediate purchase/consumption mindset, this could change as private sector sourcing commitments from companies such as Unilever, Coca Cola and Starbucks continue to drive major market growth for sustainable commodities — and when sustainability issues as related to food and drink become more prominent in the public debate, as has happened in the areas of health and nutrition.

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