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Third-party Sustainability Certification

Learn more about third-party sustainability certification.
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© University of Central Lancashire

Sustainability represents a critical issue within marketing. Consumer responses to sustainable products – products with a positive environmental and / or social impact because they are produced with concern for human and natural resources – tend to be positive. However, consumers’ positive attitudes towards sustainable products do not necessarily translate into purchase behaviour. Price, performance, quality, availability, convenience and time required to source sustainable alternatives have been found to represent barriers to purchasing such products.

In order to encourage consumers to purchase, companies add third-party certification labels to their products. By submitting their products for certification by independent organisations, they add additional attributes to their products. Such certification assists consumers in categorising a product as sustainable and so increases the credibility of the product, which may lead to a purchase (Brach et al., 2018).

Whilst research evidence indicates that third-party certification labels encourage the purchase of sustainable products, there is also evidence to suggest that they do not always have this positive effect. More specifically, the lack of a consistent labelling approach and the presence of hundreds of third-party certification labels, creates challenges for consumers and may overwhelm their abilities to assess the certification. Whilst third-party certification labels are intended to reduce purchase risk for consumers, they may in fact function as a credence attribute that consumers find hard to evaluate. As such, consumers may be overwhelmed by the information available and some express criticism towards sustainability claims (Brach et al., 2018; Prell et al., 2020).

Prell et al. (2020) organise sustainability certifications into three subcategories:

  1. Fairtrade / social certifications: This grouping is primarily concerned with the wellbeing of the producers, such as humane working conditions, prohibition of child labour, ensuring a fair wage, etc.
  2. Environmental certifications: These certifications focus on the environmental impact of production and concern carbon footprint, deforestation, animal welfare, etc.
  3. Organic certifications: The number of organic certifications is extraordinarily high. Organic products are often purchased because of the direct health benefits to the consumer. Such benefits tend to be the focus of the marketing, rather than the benefits of such production to the environment.

Aprile et al. (2012) also recognise the category of local food products, foods that are characterised by a strong identification with a particular geographic region. They maintain that local and organic foods may be categorised as sustainably produced foods, since they reflect two different components of sustainability – a social component related to the integration of support of the agriculture with the needs of citizens and an environmental component related to the sustainable use of natural resources.

Brach et al.’s (2018) study sought to identify barriers to sustainable consumption in the product categories of milk, dishwashing detergent and shower gel, and ways to overcome them. As such, their work contributes important insight into consumers’ attitude-intention gap in relation to sustainable products. Brach et al. (2018) found potential financial losses and poorer performance by sustainable products to present barriers to sustainable purchasing. Also, a time-risk was identified in that consumers perceived increased search time required for buying sustainable products. Brach et al. (2018) found that third-party certification labels reduce consumers’ perceived risk associated with sustainable products and so decrease barriers to sustainable purchasing. As such, certification provides brand-like certification cues that reduce the perceived risk of sustainable products. Their study also found that third-party certification labels decrease consumers’ risk perception and increase their likelihood of purchasing only if consumers perceive the certification as credible.

Aprile et al.’s (2012) research found Italian consumers willing to pay a price premium for olive oil with geographic and organic certifications. Prell et al.’s (2020) study represent one of the first studies to be conducted in a developing country, as most research has been conducted in developed countries in North American and Europe. In their study with Brazilian consumers and ready-to-drink juice, they found increased preference for products with certifications over products with no certification. However, price-sensitive consumers tend to evaluate products based on price and so for these consumers the effect of certification, whilst positive, remains small.

Sources:

Aprile, M. C., Caputo, V. & Nayga Jr, R. M. (2012). Consumers’ valuation of food quality labels: the case of the European geographic indication and organic farming labels. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 36(2), pp. 158-165.

Brach, S., Walsh, G. & Shaw, D. (2018). Sustainable consumption and third-party certification labels: Consumers’ perceptions and reactions. European Management Journal, 36(2), pp. 254-265.

Prell, M., Zanini, M. T., Caldieraro, & Migueles, C. (2020). Sustainability certifications and product preference. Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 38(7), pp. 893-906.

© University of Central Lancashire
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