Today more and more companies are making commitments to source raw materials that have been certified by voluntary standards systems according to social and environmental criteria. Just this month, Kroger, a large American supermarket chain, set a goal to procure 100 percent of its top 20 wild-caught seafood items from sources that are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Other companies like Sara Lee, Nestlé and Unilever have made similar commitments to source certified materials.

As a result of these corporate commitments, consumers are starting to see products with labels indicating that a key value proposition of the product is its sustainability. The question – do consumers care? Do they pay attention? What do they expect to see? What way of communicating these messages would make the product more appealing?

In collaboration with ISEAL, the global association for social and environmental standards, AccountAbility commissioned research to better understand consumer views on voluntary standards systems. The research, conducted by Swiss firms UNICO-first and GfK, included focus groups and online surveys of audiences in Switzerland, the UK, and the U.S. Among the  highlights:

Certified vs. Non-Certified Labels: “Third-party” certification was shown to enhance credibility in the minds of consumers.  

Demonstrating Impact: Consumers responded favorably to labels that had clear messages regarding impact on sustainable development outcomes such as climate change, poverty and others. More than half those surveyed say that labels which provide information about impact on the package are more credible than labels which don’t.

Umbrella Label: The research tested whether consumers would respond to new types of umbrella labels (a label that brings together multiple individual sustainability standards under one “umbrella” label). Across all three markets, consumers preferred labels that linked three or more credible standards systems. Umbrella labels gave consumers confidence in both the sustainability bona fides of the product and the credibility of the label.

Buying decisions: Different sustainable development issues influence consumer decisions in different markets:

  • In Switzerland, aspects of the environment, working conditions, animal welfare and quality are important considerations in purchasing decisions. Moreover, locally-sourced, regional products are highly valued.
  • In the UK, the environment, working conditions, animal welfare and quality are also key factors that influence buying decisions, but price plays an important role as well.
  • In the U.S., consumers focus most on price, quality, and healthiness. However, the environment and animal welfare are also quite often important considerations.

Other findings include the importance of a consistent overall buying proposition for consumers when evaluating the credibility of a label. Consumers want to see a logical connection between the label and the product category. The packaging material of a labeled product should also demonstrate sustainability. The brand’s image and its label should logically relate, otherwise the label could be perceived as trying to “greenwash” a problematic brand.

Additionally, the research showed a growing preference by consumers for local products. Increasingly, consumers trust locally grown and sold products, perceiving them as less damaging to the environment, more natural, nutritious, tasty, and overall sustainable.

The bottom line - consumers continue to be drawn to sustainably-sourced products. Brands will benefit from actively engaging with labeling organizations to ensure credibility, clarity, and communication.

What's your view?