In the previous section, I emphasized that certain consumer segments have a clear preference for specific sustainability labels and thus food labeling represents a potential way to influence food consumption. Eco-labels are believed to assist in decreasing information asymmetry between supply and demand regarding sustainability issues (Annunziata, Mariani, & Vecchio, 2018).
Hence, by introducing labels, numerous initiatives have started communicating sustainability-related information about food to increase transparency along the food chain and promote sustainable consumption (Grunert, Hieke, & Wills, 2014). Several studies assessed what factors influence the use of food labels and explored how effective these labels are in influencing consumer behavior.
Overall, consumers associate sustainability mostly with environmental issues and express their concerns rather on a general level than on a product-related level (Grunert, Hieke, & Wills, 2014). Similarly, studies have shown that consumers perceive certain sustainability features of products (e.g. organic products) as healthier, tastier, and of higher nutritional value compared with conventional products, creating a so-called “halo effect” that leads certain consumers to derive positive effects from sustainable production (Lazzarini, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2018).
This could explain why, comparing the same products with and without sustainability labels, evidence suggests that consumers are willing to pay a premium for products with sustainability labels (Annunziata, Mariani, & Vecchio, 2018). However, although most consumers claim to be willing to pay for more sustainable food products, the share of sustainably produced food in total consumption has remained low (Vlaeminck, Jiang, & Vranken, 2014).
One of the factors potentially influencing the use of eco-labels is a concern: The more consumers are concerned with sustainability issues regarding food production, the higher is the level of understanding of sustainability labels, suggesting that the sustainability concern factor positively increases the probability of understanding such labels (Annunziata, Mariani, & Vecchio, 2018). Although consumers show concern and understanding concerning food sustainability issues, it has not translated into greater use of sustainability labels (Leach, et al., 2016). In the same way, research has shown that motivation is an important factor in making sustainable food choices (Lazzarini, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2018); however, while the motivation to behave sustainably is commonly found among consumers, its translation into actual sustainable food choices seems more challenging (Grunert, Hieke, & Wills, 2014). This points out that, despite the high motivation of certain consumers, they may not realize their objectives if their ability or opportunity to do so is low (Annunziata, Mariani, & Vecchio, 2018). In other words, consumers’ commitments toward sustainability translate into use only if they have the capacity and the opportunity to behave as anticipated and although consumers are motivated to do so, they might choose less sustainable products due to habits, taste preferences, or price (Lazzarini, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2018). Grunert et al. (2014) argue that this has partly to do with the constant trade-offs that consumers make when purchasing food: Product attributes such as price, brand, quantity, use-by-date, and nutrition information compete permanently with eco-labels for consumer responsiveness and influence on choice behavior. Grunert et al. acknowledge that the more motivated consumers are to make use of sustainability features, the more they are determined to put effort into using them in the above-mentioned trade-offs, which eventually determines their consumption choice.
Although Grunert et al. (2014) find that the use of eco-labels is positively related to motivation and concern about sustainable food production, they conclude that these effects are weak and that the low level of use is not necessarily due to an equally low level of sustainability concerns. On the contrary, Grunert et al. point out that there is generally a fairly high level of concern, albeit this concern does not translate into consistent levels of use. Often, lack of use can also be related to a lack of understanding. In the same study, Grunert et al. (2014) refer to sustainability as being an abstract concept to which consumers may struggle to relate and take the relation between understanding and use of labels one step further by connecting it to the framework of concern for sustainability issues. The study hence suggests that self-reported use of sustainability labels is higher, for higher levels of understanding, when concern is high, whereas self-reported use of sustainability labels is lower, for higher levels of understanding, when concern is low. This outcome will also depend on the extent to which the consumer understands the labels and the ability of the consumer to make use of information. Grunert et al. underline that if the meaning of the labels is unclear and/or the labels are unfamiliar or unknown, even a motivated consumer cannot make use of them. Ultimately, their study concludes that motivation, concern, and understanding alone are not sufficient to drive consumer behavior or change food consumption.
Vlaeminck et al. (2014) refer to this gap between consumers’ attitude and their actual buying behavior as the attitude/behavior gap. In their study, they examine to what extent food labeling can reduce this gap and they find that consumer attitudes turn into more eco-friendly behavior when the sustainability information of the food products is more accessible. Their findings suggest that an accessible eco-label increases the general sustainability of their subjects’ food consumption in the experimental market by about 5.3%. Likewise, the accessibility of a label also translates into the visibility of that label. In a recent study, Annunziata, Mariani, and Vecchio (2018) offer insight into the factors that influence attention to, and understanding of, four sustainability labels (i.e. organic, Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, and Libera Terra) among young adults and found that the level of visibility and thus understanding of such labels among young consumers is low. Annunziata et al. observe that, in general, in terms of both understanding and visibility, the organic label is the most known among young adults, while Rainforest Alliance and Libera Terra are less familiar. These results are supported by previous research indicating that organic is best-known compared with other sustainability labels (e.g. Rainforest or carbon footprint) (Van Loo, Caputo, Nayga Jr., & Verbeke, 2014). Notably, the results of Annunziata et al. (2018) show low use of sustainability labels on food products in particular for those labeled with insufficient visibility, such as Rainforest Alliance and Libera Terra, since almost half of the respondents had never tried such products. On the contrary, organic products show higher consumption rates, though on an occasional basis. The correlation between visibility and understanding (Grunert, Hieke, & Wills, 2014) shows the prime importance of sustainability labels to be self-explanatory. Most of all, it is essential to exhibit the sustainability characteristics of the product as much as possible, so that consumers can effortlessly associate the label with the respective sustainability attribute. Grunert et al. (2014) argue that “understanding of specific sustainability labels is related to awareness of these labels, and to the ability of these labels to communicate their meaning, i.e., the extent to which they are self-explanatory” (p. 187). Furthermore, aside from the visibility factor, the disparity of use could also be due to the lack of availability of products with such labels (i.e. Rainforest or Libera Terra) in conventional food stores (Annunziata, Mariani, & Vecchio, 2018). Hence, Annunziata et al. advocate the concept that visibility of a label, rather than the motivation of the consumer, is more important in influencing understanding and, subsequently, they recommend increasing the presence and availability of eco-friendly products in conventional stores to encourage sustainable food consumption.
Regardless of the method of assessment and the main motivation behind previous studies, so far research in the field agrees that, overall, the share of sustainably produced food in total consumption stays low, suggesting that sustainability labels only have a marginal impact on consumers’ food choices. Although consumers show concern and understanding regarding sustainably produced foods, it has not yet translated into greater use of sustainability labels, which implies in return that their impact on consumers’ food choices remains negligible. As evidence suggests that motivation, concern, and understanding alone are not sufficient to shift consumer choices towards more sustainable food consumption, other relevant factors, aside from accessibility and visibility, influencing the use of labels have been identified. Accordingly, previous research highlights the key importance of knowledge, in particular using education and information provision, about sustainability issues related to food production.
In their 2014 study, Vlaeminck, Jiang, and Vranken affirm that the earlier mentioned attitude/behavior gap occurs partly because the information provided in existing food markets is not informative of the environmental impact of food production. In the same way, Grunert et al. (2014) highlight that already existing labels in general call attention to only one single sustainability attribute, e.g. its place of origin, carbon emissions, or whether a product is organic. This lack of information implies that education on sustainability issues related to food production is necessary to get consumers to use sustainability labels and eventually shift their food consumption.
In 2008, Teil, Rubin, and Noblet found that an information program about the environmental impact of consumption may be effective in shifting consumers’ purchasing choices toward relatively expensive durable goods, such as eco-labeled cars. This, et al. argue that introducing eco-labeling without an appropriate education program may result in ineffective or marginal initiatives and thus emphasize the major importance to inform people that what they buy matters. Similarly, other studies found that both general environmental knowledge and issue-specific environmental knowledge (e.g. eco-label knowledge) positively influence sustainable attitudes and eco-friendly consumer behavior (Taufique, Siwar, Chamhuric, & Sarah, 2016) and that communication and information could play a crucial role in shifting consumer attitude towards carbon-free products (Lombardi, Berni, & Rocchi, 2016).
Indeed, in recent years, some researchers have looked at the impact of consumer knowledge regarding sustainable behavior on food choices. For example, Peschel, Grebitus, Steiner, and Veeman (2016) analyzed the role of consumer knowledge about sustainable behavior in affecting consumer food choices with sustainability labels. As evidence suggests that low levels of knowledge about sustainability labels potentially prevent their use when making food choices (Grunert, Hieke, & Wills, 2014), Peschel et al. investigated different channels of consumer knowledge, namely objective knowledge (i.e. what is memorized), subjective knowledge (i.e. what individuals think they know) and user experience (e.g. relating to previous “green” purchases), to address this issue. They find that irrespective of the product, high degrees of subjective and objective knowledge drive sustainable food choices. Peschel et al. also observed a divergence between subjective and objective knowledge about sustainability: subjective knowledge has more influence on actual sustainable behavior than objective knowledge. For segments in which objective knowledge is prevalent, their findings infer that price is the most significant attribute, with a preference for sustainable alternatives only if corresponding prices are low. In addition, for segments with high levels of both objective and subjective knowledge, price plays only a trivial role, suggesting that highly knowledgeable consumers present a highly price inelastic demand. This is in line with related research proposing that the importance of the price in the consumption decision declines after consumers are informed of the potential impact of consumption on the environment (Lombardi, Berni, & Rocchi, 2016). However, usage experience assessed both previous sustainable purchases and membership in environmental groups were found to be less important in influencing sustainable food choices. Peschel et al. emphasize that educating consumers about sustainability issues related to food production and consumption is an important task for those who want to foster sustainable behavior and suggest that about 20% of consumers in the investigated countries are ready to adopt sustainability labels (e.g. footprint labels) in their food choices, with another 10-20% that could be targeted by promoting subjective knowledge.
Comparably, Samant, Crandall, and Seo (2016) focused on comparing the efficiency of different forms of educational intervention in enhancing consumers’ understanding and attitude towards sustainability labels. After assigning participants randomly into one of three educational-intervention groups, i.e. active learning (discussing label claims with other participants), passive learning (reading a flyer about label claims), and passive learning with an authoritative effect (attending a professor’s lecture on label claims), the results revealed that the respondents’ subjective and objective understanding of the sustainability label significantly increased following the educational intervention, irrespective of the type of education. However, the effect of education on consumers’ attitudes differed by intervention method: While active learning showed either no effect or a negative effect on attitudes, passive learning and passive learning with an authoritative effect tended to increase positive attitudes toward food labeling. Samant et al. conclude that educational intervention on food labels not only enhances trust in such labels but also increases their importance of them when making product purchases, indicating that improving consumers’ understanding of labels is key to encouraging consumers to make more informed choices.
Although the price component is nonetheless paramount in consumers’ decision-making process, the above-mentioned findings highlight that eco-labeling could be more effective if combined with information provision or educational intervention. However, as information overload may limit the use of such sustainability labels (Annunziata, Mariani, & Vecchio, 2018) one could question what level of information is too much information. Accordingly, in the framework of combining both concepts, it is important to find the right balance between information provision and food labeling.