The big challenge to raise eco labelling awareness among consumers

Consumers keep saying they want food from their supermarket shelves to be sustainable – so why are so many not aware of the certification schemes which deliver eco-labels you can trust, asks Lara Koritzke, director of communications of the ISEAL Alliance.

Portrait of Lara from ISEAL

I was running with a friend yesterday who began talking about how she bought a new brand of frozen salmon the week before and her daughter loved it.

She then lamented that she couldn’t serve it more often due to the mercury concentration in fish.

Rather than get into an entire discussion of mercury pollution and the concentrations in various species of fish (salmon, being lower on the food chain, tends to have lower levels), I instead steered the conversation towards suggesting to her that she begin looking for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification mark on her fish products.

I explained that products with the MSC label come from sustainably managed fisheries that minimize environmental impacts. My friend had never heard of MSC despite its appearance in most of our major grocery stores.

But this is not surprising. Studies by the MSC have shown that only 23% of consumers recognize its label.

Why should I care to change my friend’s seafood-buying habits?  Because I have worked for more than 15 years in the field of ecolabelling, currently serving as the Director of Communications for the ISEAL Alliance, the global membership association of sustainability standards and certification.

Many of our members including Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, Forest Stewardship Council and others have achieved double digit growth over the last few years.

However, despite increasing global recognition, legitimacy, and evidence of positive impacts, very few of these credible labels are actually recognised by consumers.

This should be a wake-up call to the certification movement. We need to better engage with consumer groups.

This is one of the reasons ISEAL has chosen this year to begin working more closely with Consumers International as a supporter. We know that consumers care about sustainability.

They want to make good choices. We also know that certification labels are generally not the first source of information for consumers to make those choices.

Consumers are instead going to social media, online reviews and ratings, blogs and friends.

However, with some of these vehicles, there remains the possibility of being swayed by good marketing, rather than good practice.

My organisation, ISEAL, was founded in 2002 and has become the global leader in defining credibility in sustainability standards and certification.

Our hope now is that certification will build increased trust with the consumer movement.

Certification programmes like those in ISEAL have decades of experience, science behind their standards, a robust multistakeholder process in setting standards and monitoring systems to make improvements.

They represent something deeper for all those “eco” products in the shopping cart. They represent impartial inspections and formal verifications of responsible practices. Their labels are carefully controlled and used in accordance to specialized traceability systems.

In the next year ISEAL hopes to move a little closer to building formal trust and support for the consumer movement.

We will be unveiling a new tool that can help consumer groups have a deeper understanding of the huge range of sustainability claims and labels (some credible, some not) in the marketplace.

This will improve consumer knowledge and drive discussion about what makes a credible label.
This will include helping consumers know which questions to ask to find out what a claim or sustainability label truly means.

In the future and in our collaboration with Consumers International, we hope that the consumer voice will be in more levels of ISEAL’s work, where we design standards, where we test new standards, where we assess our impacts. We are looking forward to it.

For more information on ISEAL and to watch a 2 minute video on what is important in determining the credibility of claims and labels visit our website.

This article was originally published by Consumers International.