Power of consumer

Consumers have the power to influence the food system through the food choices they make. As we have seen, consumer choice is driving changes such as the increasing area of organic agriculture, the expansion in vegetarian/vegan food products and the increasing range of sustainability logos. However, while many consumers feel that sustainability issues are important, this may not be reflected in the foods they choose to buy[1,2]. There is often an ‘attitude-behaviour’ gap because for many consumers the most important criteria when purchasing food are price, quality, convenience, and brand familiarity [3,4].

Higher welfare and sustainability costs more

Better sustainability and ethical practices, such as animal welfare, come at a cost. Thus, farmers are under pressure to deliver food of a high standard at a price consumers are willing to pay. According to a 2010 study [5], consumers in France, Germany and the United Kingdom would be willing to pay premium prices for certified agricultural produce as a result of their trust in the food agent/farmer. However, consumers in Italy and Spain were found to have a general distrust for farmers and therefore this reduced their willingness to pay premium prices. Therefore it isn’t always straightforward to market these more sustainably produced food products.

Consumers don’t always act on information provided

Recently, a collaborative research study was conducted on consumers’ concerns about food sustainability and the use of sustainability labels on food[6,7]. The online survey had 4408 respondents from France, Germany, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the UK and found that consumers were aware of, and seemingly understood, the sustainability labels (environmental and ethical based) presented in the study. However, recognition of what the labels stood for did not influence their food product choices. Whilst consumers were generally concerned about sustainability issues, their knowledge was abstract and their understanding was limited. This limited understanding may have been responsible for their low motivation to purchase and use sustainable products; however, the key barrier was the high cost of sustainable products.

In another report [8], further barriers to consumers acting on sustainability labels were suggested which included; simply not taking notice of labels, not understanding the information the label is conveying, misunderstanding the meaning of the information conveyed by the label, having conflicting priorities to that of the label information (eg cost, taste etc.), the difficulty of carrying out the sustainability practice, and weak motivations that fail when making a food choice. These barriers could be overcome by using communication, which is clear, credible and reliable in helping make sustainable choices which are not at the expense of quality (especially taste), price, health and convenience. Addressing cost is another an obvious solution but it has been suggested that making sustainability issues more prominent in the public agenda may lead to a stronger motivation in consumers to use sustainable products [6].

All the studies highlight the importance of effective and consistent communication of information on ethical issues to increase consumers’ knowledge of the production processes, standards, certification practices and labelling information, and consequentially trust in the food system. Consumers, making more of an effort to understand pertinent issues around welfare and sustainability, need to direct the food system by making related food choices. The studies above seem to suggest that the more consumers know, the more likely it is for the information to influence their beliefs, behaviour and decisions in relation to purchasing ethical and sustainable products.

The credibility of the food system essentially lies in the authorities, food producers and consumers all playing their part. As we have explored in this course; policy makers, the food industry, regulators and independent bodies can work together to ensure that information about our food is disseminated transparently and effectively. Consumers, on the other hand, need to use this information - provided through campaigns, labels, logos and other accurate sources - to make informed decisions that will help shape the food system. Whilst this seems obvious, the potential power of the consumer in influencing systems in the context of maintaining food safety standards, ensuring the consumption of nutritional and good quality food and setting expected standards for sustainable and ethical food production, cannot be overemphasised.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below about what you think could be done to over-come this attitude-behaviour gap?


For the full list of references please see under ‘Downloads’ and further reading is provided under ‘See also’ - both found at the bottom of this Step

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This article is from the free online course:

Trust in Our Food: Understanding Food Supply Systems

EIT Food