Consumers wish to have reliable information regarding the sustainability aspects of products when choosing between them. The myriad of sustainability labels and claims reduces their usefulness to consumers. Moreover, they provide consumers too little information for giving them any assurance. Only labels with clear information will be of use to consumers when seeking to make sustainable choices. These are some of the conclusions of a study commissioned by the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) into the knowledge and use of sustainability labels among consumers. In that context, consumers expect the legislature to play a more central role, for example, by certifying labels. Recent European proposals are aimed at helping consumers make sustainable choices, focusing on stricter rules for labels.
Cateautje Hijmans van den Bergh, Member of the Board, explains: “Consumers seek assurance. They have a hard time determining to what extent a product is actually sustainable. Sustainability labels can help consumers make sustainable choices, but such information will have to be verifiable, easy-to-compare, and easy-to-understand. That is not the case right now. It is up to the legislature to set out clear rules for labels.”
Sustainable consumption plays a key role in the transition to a sustainable society. Consumers and businesses that wish to help realize that goal find it increasingly important to make sustainable choices. In their communications towards consumers, businesses wish to explain how they help create a more sustainable world. ACM makes sure that their communications regarding sustainability are clear, transparent, and verifiable for consumers.
The study commissioned by ACM looked into how consumers understand, interpret, and use sustainable claims in their purchasing processes. The study primarily focused on sustainability labels.
Consumer study into sustainability labels
The study has revealed that knowledge of sustainability labels among consumers is notably limited. Although people do know some labels, they often do not know what they stand for, who issues them, and who checks them. Consumers say that, if they are given more information about and therefore have more knowledge of such labels, they will use them more often.
The study also looked into the ways in which information about labels can be presented to consumers in a clear and easy-to-understand manner. It has also been revealed that consumers appreciate visual labels. For example, information about the sustainability aspects of a product presented as a sustainability score (comparable to the energy label for electronics) scored the best in that context.
Only one in four consumers have confidence in sustainability labels. As a result thereof, labels fail to offer people assurance when making sustainable choices. Consumers do wish to have information about the labels they see on products.
Role of the legislature
Clear and reliable information is needed for stimulating consumers to make sustainable choices. The current system of labels does not offer that assurance. The lack of a clear statutory framework for labels hinders ACM’s enforcement efforts. Recent European legislative proposals have made steps in that area, as they contain stricter requirements on sustainability labels and logos. For example, only labels that are based on independent certification by the government or an independent third party can be used. In advance thereof, ACM sees such legislative proposals as a solid basis for starting with introducing requirements on sustainability labels. ACM calls on the legislature and the corporate world to revamp the current system of labels.
In addition to labels, businesses also use many other sustainability claims, without it being clear that such claims have been sufficiently substantiated. Presenting a product as sustainable when it is not, is considered a misleading practice. That is why ACM launched investigations into misleading sustainability claims in the clothing, energy, and dairy sectors. In the clothing and energy sectors, follow-up investigations are currently underway into four companies. In addition, in the investigation into the clothing sector, four requests for enforcement were sent to other consumer authorities abroad. ACM will share information from the investigation into sustainability claims in the dairy sector with the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA).
16-06-2022 Study into the influence of sustainability aspects on consumers (in Dutch)