onsistency across labelling is needed before consumer power can drive food systems change, say Oxford University researchers.
In the first systematic review of its kind, they found that, regardless of the claim or format, consumers were more likely to choose a product with an “ecolabel” in 79 per cent of cases.
It confirms the strong consumer appetite for food and drink products labelled with environmental sustainability information.
The group synthesised 56 studies from Europe, North America, Asia, Australia and South America with a total of 42,768 participants to produce The Effects of Environmental Sustainability Labels on Selection, Purchase, and Consumption of Food and Drink Products: A Systematic Review.
The studies tested ecolabels with different sustainability claims and formats. These included greenhouse gas emissions, pesticides, water usage and organic, as well as combinations of this information, presented as logo, text, or in mixed formats.
“There’s not really a system, it’s an ad-hoc array”
However, the researchers say the huge variety of ecolabels in use and the lack of regulation for their application could undermine their impact.
Dr Brian Cook, one of the team involved explains, “There’s not really a system – it’s an ad-hoc array of labels that exist in different jurisdictions.
“It can be confusing for consumers to know what the labels mean, and it may affect trust in the labels. You need to have some kind of consistency, for people to be able to use them better.”
In terms of how this consistency could be implemented, Dr Cook says that there are several possibilities, “We could certainly have a government-mandated environmental impact labelling scheme, as we do with nutrition.
“Some people are talking about bloc-chain technology, which is used in cryptocurrency. This could be a decentralised architecture that you could use so that people would have more trust in it.”
“It will be really interesting to have this discussed at the Food Systems Summit”
Dr Cook emphasises the need for connectivity across food systems to create a credible ecolabelling framework, “For companies, the big issue is getting information from their supply chains to be able to build these eco scores.
“They need support from governments and networks in general, to figure out how you provide accurate information.
“I know there are organisations like the World Business Council For Sustainable Development who are thinking about this, so there’s definitely a lot of momentum, but at the end of the day there needs to be some coherence in how it’s all done.”
Having labelling on the agenda at the UN Food Systems Summit is a big step, he adds, “It will be really interesting to have this discussed at a global level to raise the profile, and figure out if there is a system we can move forward with.
“Whatever it looks like, there needs to be a system where people trust that the label is accurate. It needs to be very simple, very clear, very understandable, and actionable for people when they’re at the point of making these decisions.”
“There’s always a balance of simplicity”
The review indicates that developing consumer trust is important, as “there is tentative evidence of greater effectiveness if the ecolabel is backed by a certification scheme.”
The review concludes by advising that “more high-quality research is needed in real-word settings to enable more robust conclusions about the likely impact of ecolabels if adopted as a policy action.
“This includes the potential for unintended consequences, such as the effect of ecolabels on purchasing products that may have negative impacts on human health.”
To offset any negative health impact, the report suggests exploring a combined system, incorporating ecolabelling and nutritional labelling.
Dr Cook says that while a labelling system giving consumers the full picture of a product’s journey “might” have a bigger impact on the overall sustainability of food systems, “there’s always a balance of simplicity. What’s the minimum amount of information you can provide to people to nudge them in a direction without overwhelming them?
“Those are all really important things to think about in terms of food systems and how our products are made, but obviously it gets much more complicated the more factors you put in there, and how you balance between them. So, I’d be in favour of starting out small.”