What does the consumer really "want" when choosing eco-labelled products? / by Francisco Blaha

A big part of the selling point of the ecolabels brands is that the consumer rewards the investment the companies make in paying for the certification with a price plus in their product and that their logo and story is better than the other ecolabels that compete for the same business.

 What to do my fellow friends?… to Ecolabels or not to Ecolabel, that is the question…

What to do my fellow friends?… to Ecolabels or not to Ecolabel, that is the question…

In my experience the price plus hardy eventuates, but is more about positioning in a rich country market where “sustainability” is something seems keen to afford.

Here in Majuro I board everyday tuna vessels that catch the same tuna, under the same management system, in the same part of the world with the same method (and with both FAD associated and free school* sets (see below for additional comment), yet part of the cargo of one vessel has a sustainability logo because they pay for the certification, while the other vessel (doing mostly the same) don’t have it because they didn’t pay for the certification? Seems more than business than a higher motivation for the common good to me… in any case my opinions about Ecolabels are public.

In any case i was interested to read this psychology paper (A Social Norms Intervention Going Wrong: Boomerang Effects from Descriptive Norms Information) that deals with the perceptions by the consumer and how he really react to the logo of an ecolabel and the messages on it.

I paste below the discussion, but as usual read the original!

The results of this research suggest that popular social norms advertisement, like, “More than 75% of the seafood customers in this store bought MSC-labelled seafood”, might not influence supermarket shoppers’ purchasing patterns in the intended way. In fact, rather than promoting a more sustainable diet, they might do the opposite while at the same time leading to increased consumption of seafood (in this case) in general. Messages, including the social norms ones promoting seafood from sustainable origin, seems to be processed in a very shallow way in the busy and message-over-crowded supermarket setting. Shoppers primarily seem to comprehend the overall theme seafood—a product category which then indeed gets primed, increasing the likelihood that they will indeed buy some. At least in the present studies, texts and labels promoting sustainability were apparently not processed sufficiently to produce the intended effect, and instead, consumers relied on their usual choice heuristics for this product group [55].

However, substantial differences were identified between the Norwegian and the German supermarkets. In the former, but not in the latter, an information prompt about the sustainability label alone led to a significant increase in the sustainability labelled share of seafood sales. This may be due to a mixture of factors. First, this is the experimental condition where least text was added, and the text was even simpler and shorter in the Norwegian case, where there was only one label on the sign, while there were two in the German case. The text being simpler may have made it easier to grasp its meaning (i.e., “less is more”). Second, there were on average twice as many sustainability-labelled seafood products in the Norwegian than in the German supermarkets, making sustainability labels more salient in the shopping context in Norway than in Germany. This may have meant that the Norwegian shoppers may have been relatively more exposed to and therefore more familiar with the sustainability label than the German shoppers. Third, the share of sustainability-labelled seafood products sold was also twice as high at baseline in the Norwegian than in the German supermarkets, which may mean that the Norwegian shoppers had more experience with sustainability-labelled seafood and therefore could also process this information on the sign with less effort.

In the Norwegian case, adding social norms information to the sign neutralized the positive effect of labelling information on sales, leading to a significant drop in sales compared with labelling only. In the German case, adding social norms information also led to a significant drop in sales, both compared with the prompt-only condition and compared with baseline. The negative effect in Norway could be due to the increased amount of information confusing shoppers and dragging attention away from the labelling information. However, this cannot explain the findings in the German case. The significant drop in the sustainability share compared with baseline in the German supermarkets suggests that the social norms messages were demotivating shoppers and perceived as something negative about buying sustainability-labelled products. A possible reason is that German shoppers found the social norm messages pressing or manipulating, which led to psychological reactance.

These findings are in line with previous research revealing trait reactance and the importance of autonomous buying behaviour as significant predictors of situational reactance on a sample of German consumers [72]. Psychological reactance is also a possible explanation for the drop in the share of sustainability-labelled seafood when adding social norm messages to the prompt only in Norway.

Hence, it can be concluded that the main effect of messages in the supermarket context aiming to make individuals consume products with specific (sustainability) characteristics within a product category is to promote the consumption of this product category in general, without increasing the share of sustainable produce. This is similar to the finding that telling people not to eat a particular product can have the opposite of the intended effect, due to the message priming the product, as it was found in Study 2.

An important implication for the promotion of sustainable consumption options is to focus on simple messages, avoiding long, fuzzy, and complex messages [73]. For example, instead of promoting “eating less meat”, promoting “plant-based alternatives” would be more effective. Indeed, campaigns promoting the consumption of more fruit and vegetables [35,74] are probably the main reason why meat consumption has decreased in Europe in the most recent decades. However, it also shows that promoting sustainably produced products within categories that are unsustainable can be complicated. The use of labels and symbols to identify sustainable products has shown good results in the past [1]. However, the design and placement of labels and symbols need to be based on a thorough understanding of how consumers make choices in the product category [26,75]. Also, such a label or symbol needs to be promoted in a way that makes the actual logo and its core meaning easily accessible in the consumers’ minds in the moment of decision, preferably more accessible than other product characteristics. Potentially, a general “green” logo on all products following sustainable certification guidelines would be an option. If one logo standing for sustainability could be applied to all product groups, the meaning of this logo will be easy to process and its priming is likely to be effective. In this way, consumers following sustainability goals would more easily identify their preferred products with a symbol standing for sustainability being salient in their minds.

The results of these two studies suggest that the display of pictures or icons is more efficient than the display of text, especially in real-life purchase situations where written information is hardly read or processed carefully. More research is needed on how to make the sustainable logo and its core meaning more salient in consumers’ minds at the moment of decision.

From this research, it is concluded that just adding text with label information and social norms messages is not the way to go to increase the share of sustainable product alternatives. Additional text will often not be processed in the purchase decision situation or the message will be forgotten as soon as other product characteristics come into play. This also illustrates that to reach the desired effects and minimize the risk of side effects, careful evaluation is necessary before communication strategies are implemented.

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Is really interesting to be doing vessels inspection inspections during the WCPFC FAD closure (July to September)… even if the concept of closures is not completely black and white. Since the closure applies to all vessels but there are complicated to understand exemptions if you are flagged in Kiribati (even if they are Korean) when fishing in the high seas adjacent to the Kiribati exclusive economic zone and Philippines’ vessels operating in HSP1, and a few more.

In any case, most of the vessels I boarded until during that time had huge trips, long time at sea and very little catch… and by the mood and comments of the masters, they are not doing any money, yet somehow they don't want to tied up the vessels and send everyone home as they do in at IATTC with the fishery closures where there is no fishing during 3 months at all. As a Croatian skipper (I loved working with croats! they run crazy, funny, clean, funny boats with good food) told me yesterday in full fisherman wisdom … “a closure is a closure, or is not closure” don’t f*ck around man!

Yet knowing that in couple of years compartmentalisation will finish and only totally FAD free trips will qualify for MSC certification, I can not stop wondering if the companies will still paying for the certification if they are not making enough money trying to catch without FADs.

So either MSC pull down its pants and extend the transition process under some excuse (surely something associated to the impact of the process on small scale fisheries) or the companies go… nah… you want us more that we need you now, so the power is on our side, drop the standards or we walk away and your earning will suffer…

So yes… interesting times ahead.