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Labels: consumers look for points of reference

A study on food product labelling, co-built and co-achieved in a participatory approach was carried out by the GAEL research Unit (INRA, University of Grenoble) and the eco-citizen association CLVC, in February 2017. Focused on consumers, this study integrates various dimensions of sustainable food: nutrition, environment, corporate social responsibility… with special attention to underprivileged categories of the population. It shows that requesting more information does not imply its use in the purchasing act. It brings out recommendations to improve information on the packaging that consumers consider incomplete, unclear and unreliable and difficult to use.

Young woman in a supermarket reading the label on a packet of food. © INRA, BEAUCARDET William
Updated on 07/24/2017
Published on 02/15/2017

Motivations in purchasing food products are complex and difficult to reconcile: pleasure, health, expense, encouraging local firms or modes of consumption which are more respectful of humans, animals and the environment. In this act, labels play a major role in consumer information. What it shows and what it does not show may also be the purpose of firms’ strategies.

Among the numerous studies and research already conducted on the subject, most of them investigate consumers’ requests in a declarative way, while we know they are far from their actual purchasing behaviour. The study carried out by the GAEL research unit and the CLCV Association (French National Consumer Association) frees itself from this bias by comparing consumer declarations with consumer uses. For this purpose, it combined four methods (see insert below): an experimental economics test assessed behaviours, directive interviews ordered consumers’ requests, quantitative survey studied the credibility and beliefs, and focus groups defined shared expectations: This project mobilised 2 000 consumers.

A choice made with 2 or 3 criteria of information, price and product origin first

When making a purchase, it is difficult for consumers to handle more than two or three criteria of information even if they are synthesized. 21% of the purchases are even done “blindly” with no disclosed information. Price is taken into account in 35% of the decisions, origin in 33%. Then, come brand, labels and nutritional information. Finally, environmental impact and CSR (company social responsibility (17 and 13%) are taken into account. People with lower incomes or lower education levels look for less information than others. Price, environmental and nutritional aspects and labels are the most used by people with higher education levels, origin is more often considered by people with less education. Other result: overweight or obese people disregard nutritional information. Older people are more sensitive to the environmental impact and CSR, while younger ones are more sensitive to price.

Requesting more available information is unanimous

97% of people interviewed, particularly consumers who are less well off, selected at least one additional criterion of information to be posted on the packaging. Requested additional criteria of information are listed in the following order: use of synthetic chemical products, GMO, origin of the ingredients, understandable nutritional information. The packaging itself is the most efficient support for clear information of compulsory indications: nutritional composition, explicit mention of GMO content, use of synthetic chemical products. Apart from the ingredient origin requested on the label, “more information” (new information not yet compulsory*), is expected on internet. Focus groups show that requesting simple information harmonized and organized in a way that distinguishes the legal or compulsory information from the “marketing” information, reached consensus. Consumers express a very broad definition of the sustainable food that they consider for themselves -thinking of their health-, or the group when they care for the societal and environmental impact on the long term.

Requesting additional information which is not always used during purchase is not necessarily contradictory. It may reveal other consumers’ strategies: a future use after purchase, a delegated use for opinion leaders or their representatives. They may also suppose that, in the long term, encouraging firms to post some information can go in the common interest.

Priority to proximity and mistrust towards actors of the system

French products are considered to be the best whatever the assessment criterion (nutrition and production mode…) and this is even truer when they were produced in a nearby region. Origin, therefore, would be considered to be a practical synthetic indicator of the various dimensions of sustainable food what raises the question of elaborating a more representative synthetic indicator of sustainable food. Besides, face-to-face interviews show fear of rip-offs and lies, and a mistrust of actors, public authorities included. They show a relative confidence in scientists regarding the nutritional and environmental aspects and in producers with regard to the origin and production mode (see figure) Room for consumer associations is modest. Figure 1 should include a legend or be explained in the text.

Reliable points of reference to build

This study attempts to encourage providing a more complete or “analytical” information available to everyone: reliable, simple and eloquent for consumers as for their delegate and defenders. Market is a place for collective regulation which implicates all the stakeholders towards more sustainable food. The more accurate nature of this information remains to define and the collaboration between researchers, consumer associations and consumers is a way to improve that knowledge which will be necessary to public and private deciders.

In parallel, synthetic information, outstanding and easy to use, helping the consumer in the direction of what he/she demands to and understands of sustainable food, is indispensable. Awareness on limitations and scope of geographical proximity like an indicator of sustainability appears like a priority.

*“more information” is, for example, animal well-being, work conditions in firms, various types of environmental impacts

Documents for the study

Original methodology

  • Four systems mobilized 2,008 people making food purchases. 68% are women, 98% are urban, 14% are under 30, and most of them have a lower education level than average.
  • Online test (as close as possible to reality) of experimental economics centred on behaviours in order to assess the information really used when choosing: 989 participants had to choose 14 products among which three close substitutes. Their choices were effective and consequential: they chose real items which were effectively attributed to them, under conditions;
  • Directive (face-to-face) interview made by the CLCV volunteers to sort consumer priorities: selective ranking of additional information criteria required on labels. Ten CLVC division structures mobilised for the survey with 1000 people in urban areas. On a digital tablet, participants had to rank selectively additional criteria (beyond designation, weight and best before date of consumption) that they requested to see either on packaging or internet. Simulation was done either on a pack of 8 plain yogurts, or on a pack of sweet-butter biscuits (by drawing lots). After 4 interactions, they should keep only three additional criteria;
  • (Face-to-face) qualitative survey: in order to list individual opinions and beliefs on the information sources and designation of origin of the products that actors are the most able to provide reliable information. Still in (face-to-face), questionnaire on the credibility of information sources and opinions from the origin of both food products (apples and rice);
  • Critical collective expertise (focus groups): in order to have a shared position emerge, defining what the consensus is or is not with regard to critics and suggestions. 19 participants, divided in two groups, one of them pertained to rather wealthy social categories, the other to more disadvantaged ones: they had to give a collective and critical expertise.