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Food labelling labyrinth

Food labelling labyrinth

Do you know your Fairtrade from your organic and your free range? What does the Rainforest Alliance logo really mean? And what does the Marine Stewardship Council stand for?

Driven largely by consumer demand for more sustainable produce, we have seen a proliferation of food labels in recent years, many of which represent ethical production, in some shape or form. We’ve even begun to see a new wave of labels indicating resource efficiency, such as carbon and water footprint labels.

But those wishing to purchase ethical or sustainable produce must prepare themselves for a minefield of options. With hundreds of labels adorning the products on our supermarket shelves, questions are being raised about the lack of harmonisation across our food labelling system, and the counterproductive impact this could have on the consumer’s ability to make an informed choice. Label fatigue is becoming more prevalent and consumers’ trust in labels is diminishing as a result.

Closing the knowledge gap

Food labels such as Fairtrade and organic have undoubtedly succeeded in putting ethical issues on the map. Consumers are better able to question the origin of our food, and make more informed choices about the products we buy. This is reflected in the steady rise in sales of products bearing ethical labels, which continues to drive demand; the Ethical Consumer Markets Report 2013 showed that sales of ethical food and drink grew by 36% between 2011 and 2012 in the UK. Complex issues have been made much more accessible and ‘real’ to the consumer, but what does ethical food really mean in practice, and is this information conveyed adequately through the labels on our food? In some instances it can be misleading. Take the confusion over palm oil certified as sustainable by the RSPO, or some of the alleged human rights breaches relating to Fairtrade products.

Credibility in certification

Independent auditing is essential. It provides some external credibility over the certification schemes used, and can help to ensure that continual progress towards ethical production is achieved. But this in itself can be a grey area, since some labels are values-led, rather than adhering to a measurable set of standards. In these instances, it is difficult to quantify the criteria required in order to warrant the label; the product in question may only marginally outperform a non-labelled food product, yet it still bears an ethical label.

Turning the niche, mainstream

There’s been a drive amongst some ethical consumers for a rise in choice editing. This hinges on the premise that ethical labels should not be necessary. Rather, ethically sourced products should be the default option, rather than distinguishing particular ethical values as a differentiator. Food and beverage brands should be trusted in their own right, without the need for third party labels on particular product lines.

New legislation aims to cut the confusion

The European Union’s Single Market for Green Products initiative is a welcome development. By outlining a consistent set of principles for communicating environmental performance, it will help to align and coordinate international efforts with respect to the communication of a product’s environmental performance. In time, this should set a precedent within the food sector, and more broadly, to ensure that our quest for sustainable, ethically sourced produce does not inadvertently become a barrier to its own success.

So what’s the future of ethical labels?

Despite growing confusion around the increasing number of labels that decorate our food products, they provide a number of benefits; not least through increased consumer choice, and enhanced competition between brands with respect to their ethical performance.

However, I see ethical labels as an important stepping stone towards a scenario where ethical values are embedded within business, and applied to all products produced. Rather than highlighting ethical values as a unique selling point, our ambition should be for all food to be ethically sourced and produced.

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