Author: Durk Bosma

False Sustainability Claims Will be Penalised by Dutch Authorities

The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has announced that it will act against companies making false or vague sustainability claims. Companies that mislead consumers can run into serious trouble: fines of up to €900,000, or a percentage of their turnover. Many companies use sustainability as a means of selling their product. But their sustainability claims are by no means always well-founded. “We are actually going to see if they are not misleading consumers,” says Edwin van Houten of ACM.

Dairy, energy and clothing
ACM is starting investigations into misleading sustainability claims in the energy, dairy and clothing sectors. ACM has chosen these sectors because during preliminary investigation it saw many potentially misleading sustainability claims. And for these secotrs in particular, sustainability plays a major role for consumers in their purchases in these sectors. In total, more than 170 companies were contacted with the request to check their sustainability claims for correctness. If companies mislead consumers about the sustainability of their products, ACM will impose fines.

42 percent of claims is incorrect
Last year, research showed that 42 percent of environmental claims are incorrect. Rob van Tilburg, of Natuur & Milieu, calls them “vague claims”. “For example: our product is sustainable. Or it is recyclable. Or made from natural raw materials. That suggests that it is sustainable, but a product that is made from natural raw materials might be made with pesticides.”

Van Houten cites a carton of milk as an example, which states that “it is now produced with 30% less CO2 emissions”. “If you then keep asking questions, it turns out to be about the packaging.”

‘On the way to planet proof?’
Quality marks are one way brands can show consumers that their products are more sustainable. However, from our quality marks study we now that there is a substantial amount of generic mistrust concerning quality marks, caused by unclarity about what the different quality marks stand for and how reliable the certifying organization is. The action by the ACM will force these quality marks to clearly explain what they stand for and be absolutely transparant about the criteria for certification.

Rules of thumb for sustainability claims
Earlier this year, ACM published the rules of thumb for reliable sustainability claims:

  • Make it clear what sustainability benefit the product has
  • Support sustainability claims with facts and keep them up to date
  • Comparisons with other products, services or companies must be fair
  • Be honest and concrete about your company’s sustainability efforts
  • Make sure that visual claims and hallmarks are helpful to consumers and not confusing

Watch the news item here (in Dutch).

Read more here.

Carbon Labeling Works According to New Study

For a growing number of companies, carbon labels are a way to encourage more environmentally friendly purchases, like getting you to pick a plant-based meat over actual beef. But does learning how much carbon you’re putting into the atmosphere really affect your shopping decisions? Well, it turns out it does, even for those who’d rather not know.

In a study recently published in the journal Food Policy, researchers at the University of Copenhagen and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences looked at how carbon labels on food influence consumer choice.

What the researchers discovered is cause for optimism. Although a third of study participants said they didn’t want to know more about their food, the researchers gave them that information anyway. “We recognize that this approach may annoy participants who were provided information against their will,” they write. Whether or not they were annoyed, however, the “information avoiders” still reduced their carbon footprint by a collective 12% after viewing climate labels, primarily by swapping their choice of beef for chicken.

Participants who actually wanted to know the climate impact of their food changed their decisions to an even greater degree. Those who said “yes” to seeing the climate labels collectively reduced their carbon footprint by 32% by making new food choices, such as picking pork, chicken, or the meat substitute over beef or the combination of beef and beans.

For now, of course, carbon labels aren’t mandatory and the products that have the biggest carbon footprints aren’t likely to cough up that information on their own. Governments need to take a more active role in requiring such labels, or social norms will need to evolve to the point that consumer pressure forces companies to provide them. Maybe, in the future, a food product’s carbon footprint will be as obvious as its price and calorie count.

Read more here

Colruyt’s Ecoscore Helps its Customers Buy More Consciously and Sustainably

While the Dutch food industry is still debating introducing the Nutriscore logo, Belgian supermarket Colruyt has introduced a way to help consumers to make conscious, sustainable purchasing decisions. The Eco-Score, like the Nutri-Score, is based on a ‘robust methodology’ from France and works with similar letters and colors. The Eco-Score shows the impact of the product on the environment throughout its life cycle, from the raw materials, through processing and transport to waste or recycling. Furthermore, a product can receive bonus-malus scores based on sustainability labels, packaging, origin and impact on biodiversity. The Eco-Score goes beyond CO2 emissions, the ‘carbon footprint’, by taking into into account things like transportation, recyclability and certification.

For the time being, the Eco-Score is on some 2,500 private label products. It can be found via the SmartWithFood app. In time, Colruyt also wants to add the Eco-Scores of A brands.

Confusion All Around: What’s the Most Sustainable Dutch Supermarket?

Albert Heijn? No, PLUS. Oh no, also SPAR, Jan Linders and Boni.

This article reflects the personal opinion of Durk Bosma, Research Director of Future of Food Institute. Both GfK and SB Insight were given the chance to respond to the article before publishing. A Dutch version of this article was published on Foodlog.nl.

Over the past few weeks, the enthusiastic press releases were all around us. Both GfK and Sustainable Brand Index announced what the most sustainable supermarket is according to consumers. For marketers from the brands at the top there is every reason to fly the flag. Beautiful content for the press release, accompanied by a photo with a big smile. But something strange is going on. Both Albert Heijn and PLUS are the most sustainable supermarket. And truly sustainable supermarkets such as Ekoplaza are apparently not the most sustainable.

Does the number 1 position in these types of rankings actually mean anything?
Barely. If 2 brands end very close to each other in terms of scores, you may not declare 1 the winner. This is basic knowledge of statistics. It is a photo finish and the photo is out of focus. Sampling theory tells us how blurry it is. In this case blurry enough not to declare a winner. GfK manages to present the scores with 2 decimal places. And based on the 0.02 difference Plus is announced to be the most sustainable supermarket. A beginner’s mistake. Boni and Jan Linders are just as sustainable. And SPAR too. The conclusion should be that no supermarket distinguishes itself on the basis of sustainability and therefore that there is no winner.

Razor-thin
SB Insight AB, the Swedish company behind the Sustainable Brand Index, takes rankings one step further. The business model behind the Sustainable Brand Index is to sell reports. And in order to do that, they conduct an annual survey and publish the results. They base their ranking on just 2 questions, a razor-thin score. In doing so, they add up 2 answer options (“good” and “very good”) without doing justice to the difference between the 2 categories. A brand about which all respondents say they are “doing well” will receive the same score from SB Insight as a brand of which all respondents say they are “doing very well”. The absolute scores are not communicated (at least if you do not buy the report), so that we do not know how big the difference is between the brands. Inquiries learned that according to the rules of statistics the winners are sometimes actually the winners and sometimes they are not.

The winner is largely determined by who participates
And SB Insight’s selection procedure is dubious to say the least, but extremely important. For example, it happens that the minuscule Campina Botergoud brand is among the most sustainable food brands, while Jan Linders, which is doing so well according to GfK, is not included in the list of supermarkets. SB Insight could not give a proper explanation for this. But it is clear that a small brand that is very sustainable can never become the most sustainable brand because the selection procedure favors large brands. The question is whether it is justified to declare a brand the most sustainable in its category, if some more sustainable competitors are left out of the equation.

Winners are not winners
The 2 questions are asked to anyone who knows a certain brand (by name at least). It’s clear that if you ask that question to people who themselves have no experience with a brand or company, you are only measuring a superficial opinion. So SB Insight mainly measures brand awareness and a superficial general image that is largely determined by the category in which a brand operates No wonder, then, that market leader Albert Heijn is the most sustainable supermarket according to SB Insight. The question is whether they are really the winner. Nevertheless, we see a proud CEO in all kinds of press releases telling how well Albert Heijn has done. But in reality we don’t know at all how well Albert Heijn is doing, just that more people think Albert Heijn did better than the rest. And we are not sure about that either, because we do not know whether the score differs enough from the number 2 Jumbo (not coincidentally also number 2 in terms of market share) to be labeled as statistically significant.

How to use rankings
Rankings can be useful because they can put organizations in motion. But then those rankings must be based on thorough and transparent research. And all relevant competitors must be included in the list. And the way in which results are presented must do justice to the limitations of survey research. If that is not the case, you are fooling the public and the rankings disguise the sustainability efforts of the smaller brands that are doing very well. And at the same time, rankings ensure that major brands focus primarily on changes with a high media appeal that confirm the superficial image of doing well.

Price Gap between Organic Food and Regular Food is Partly Misperception

An important goal of the EU Green Deal is to increase the percentage of agricultural land that is farmed organically. Both the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies aim for organically farmed land to make up at least 25% of all European agriculture by 2030.

To make this happen, demand of organic foods needs to increase. Dutch consumers are slowly embracing the trend: revenue of organic products in supermarkets has increased by 70% between 2013 and 2019 (Statista, 2020). However, organic food still only accounts for 3,2% of food sales in Dutch supermarkets. (Trouw, 2020)

Now that organic foods are widely available in Dutch supermarkets, it’s important to understand what is keeping consumers from shopping organically produced foods. In a study we conducted in our Conscious Consumer Community*, we found that misperceptions about price differences form a barrier for many consumers.

2/3 open to organic, but price is a barrier
8% of Dutch consumers in our study say they buy organic whenever possible. These are the hardcore organic buyers. Growth for organic products will come from the large segment of 59% that says they would choose organic if price allowed them to.

Demand for organic products

There is a strong correlation between level of education and demand for organic products. Consumers with a higher education are more likely to purchase organic products than those with a lower education. This association is likely mediated by income and therefore is related to the affordability barrier, but not necessarily. In our 2019 Future of Food study among Dutch consumers, we found a stronger correlation between education and organic food consumption than between income and organic food consumption. In other words, households with a lower income but with a higher education are also more likely to buy organic.

Knowledge: what is organic?
Around half of the Dutch consumers in our study say they only have a vague idea or none at all about what the difference between organic products and regular products is. This is quite a large proportion of all participants given that organic products have been around for quite some time.

Knowledge about organic products

But is this lack of knowledge about the specifics of organic agriculture really a barrier? We do see that consumers who tend to buy organic report higher levels of knowledge about organic products. Of the organic buyers, 58% say they have good idea about what the difference between organic and regular food is. This means that of those who buy organic foods, 42% knows little or nothing about the differences between organic and regular products.

Knowledge about organic products vs purchasing

We expected that consumers who do not buy organic foods** would have low levels of knowledge about it. This is not the case, as only 15% report no knowledge about organics. And when asked to explain why they don’t buy organic foods, only two commented that they do not know enough about the differences.

We conclude that in depth knowledge about organically produced food is not a necessary precondition for shopping organic, but having knowledge about the benefits might help to persuade those who doubt between regular and organic.

Measuring price perception of organic foods
One of the hypotheses we wanted to test in this study is whether consumers know the actual price difference between organic products and regular. A recent experiment with changing and communicating the prices of organic milk vs regular milk showed very positive results.
We chose 3 different products to compare the price difference between the regular and organic: milk (small price difference), sauerkraut (medium price difference) and pork (large price difference).

The actual differences in price were calculated in a collaborative study by the Central Bureau for Statistics and Wageningen University and Research. We told the participants what the average price of the non-organic food is and asked them to give an estimation of the price of the equivalent organic product.

Milk: price organic mostly overestimated

One in 3 consumers guessed the price of organic milk right, but most consumers (60%) overestimated the price of organic milk. 29% overestimated the price difference by more than 20%. This is the reason why the nudging experiment conducted in Dutch supermarkets was so successful. Communicating to consumers that the price difference is much lower than they expected took away the price barrier (which in the case of milk is more a reflection of perception than reality).

Price estimation of organic milk

Sauerkraut: unclear

With sauerkraut, a product bought relatively infrequently, the estimations vary. 26% got the price right, almost the same percentage underestimated the price of organic sauerkraut, while another 40% overestimated the price. This means that for sauerkraut, it is unclear what will happen if consumers are confronted with the actual price difference. For some it will be a windfall, for others a disappointment.

Price estimation of organic sauerkraut

Pork: large underestimation

For pork the price difference between regular and organic is huge in reality (72%). This leads to a substantial underestimation of the difference. Only 3% got it right and most underestimated the difference by 30% or more. For this product category communication should focus on the value of organic pig farming (e.g. animal well-being) versus regular pig farming to justify the price difference.

Price estimation of organic pork

Conclusion
The majority of Dutch consumers say that they buy organic foods, at least when the price allows it. But only half of the Dutch consumers have a good idea about the difference between organic and non-organic food.

Consumers often mentioned high price of organic food as a reason to not buy organic. However the tendency to overestimate the price of organic food shows that consumers’ price perception consumers is not always accurate.

Organic foods have retained the image of being consistently (much) more expensive than non-organic foods. This may be the case for some foods (pork), but for others the price difference is smaller than assumed by many (milk, sauerkraut).

For those categories where the price difference is small, it pays off to communicate about the actual price difference. For those categories where the price difference is large, it is necessary to educate consumers about the benefits and value of organic farming for that specific product category.

If you want to know more about this study, please contact our Research Director Durk Bosma.

* Representative sample of Dutch consumers, n= 141
** n=46

Will Consumers Switch to Unwashed Potatoes?

British Supermarket Tesco has introduced unwashed potatoes. They have a longer shelf life as soil helps to block out light and slow down the natural decay process. Potatoes are the single ‘most wasted food’ item by households in the UK.

Tesco ran a pilot project involving unwashed organic potatoes in 120 stores. The results: the shelf-life was nearly double that of washed ones, adding up to an extra five days of freshness.

The question now is, will consumers prefer the convenience of washed potatoes or will they choose the sustainable option? Or do they choose the unwashed option, because it will help them save money?

Read more here

Dutch Largest Meat Brand Now Uses Less Meat

March 2021
Unilever brand Unox is one the largest food brands in The Netherlands, well known for it’s processed meat products, including the iconic ‘rookworst’ (smoked sausage). Their goal is to drastically reduce the share of meat in their products, down to 50%. Quite a step for a company that started out as a butcher. In order to reduce environmental impact, the brand follows 3 strategies:

– Replace meat with plant-based ingredients, creating hybrid products
– Reduce portion size, to decrease meat consumption
– Replace pork with chicken, which has less impact

Hanneke Faber, head of Unilever’s food division, considers it a scary move, but also a big opportunity for the meat industry, instigated by consumer demand.

Read more here (in Dutch)

Quality marks: useful, but too many

Dutch food quality marks from the consumer’s perspective
Consumer spending on food with a sustainable quality mark in the Netherlands increased by 18% in 2019 compared to 2018. However, the question is whether this is because consumers consciously opt for quality marks or whether the number of products with a quality mark has simply increased significantly. In the discussion about the usefulness of quality marks, one perspective has so far been missing: that of the consumer. Future of Food Institute conducted research into the role, reputation and perception of the largest quality labels in the Netherlands.

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The usefulness of food labels
Quality marks give the consumer a (limited) sense of control and the possibility to contribute to a better world in a simple way, in line with their own values. 61% of the consumers in our survey indicate that labels help them make better choices. Only 12% do not think so.
Quality marks lead to brand preference (if the consumer knows them). This is even true for the less well known ones. But simply knowing a quality mark is not enough. Consumers need to know what the logo’s stand for. If consumers only know a quality mark by name, only 12% is inclined to buy products with this quality mark. If consumers know exactly what a quality mark means, 85% is inclined to buy products with this quality mark.

Distrust
A generic mistrust, however, limits the value of quality marks. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Lack of knowledge about what the different quality marks stand for and how reliable the certifying organization is.
  • Lack of overview due to the amount of quality marks that are currently available. This has a demotivating effect on those who are willing to learn more about the value of the logos.
  • Negative image of quality marks through attention that the news media give to them.

We can say that there is hallmark fatigue. Almost two-thirds of consumers indicate that there are too many quality marks, so that an overview is lacking.

However, the negative things that are said about quality marks (mistrust, green washing, lack of clarity) are not yet causing consumers to turn away from quality marks. Hardly anyone says they consciously do not buy products with a certain quality mark.

Proactive communication required to create clarity and trust
The recommendations resulting from this research can be used to make food labels work more effectively. And by more effectively we mean that they help more consumers make a more sustainable food choice. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. It is clear that there is a lot to improve.

  • Work on clarity. Make sure that it is clear exactly what the contribution is to a better world for each label. Eliminate redundant quality marks and merge similar quality marks until there is a clear number. Give the quality marks a name from which the consumer can directly deduce what the quality mark stands for.
  • Build trust. Make it clear that you cannot just put a quality mark in the world. Make it clear how strict the requirements of each quality mark are and how checks are carried out. Be completely transparent and let the consumer look into the kitchen of the quality mark.
  • Communicate proactively what each label stands for, how it is monitored and what contribution a consumer makes by purchasing products with this label. Don’t wait for negative publicity.

The success of the Beter Leven (Better Life) quality mark shows that excellent results can be achieved. It does not matter which chain link takes up these recommendations. This could be the government, the bodies behind the labels, the food manufacturers or the retailers.
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Food Forum
The research was conducted with the help of our Food Forum, the Future of Food Institute’s Conscious Consumer Community. This is an easy and accessible solution that provides the consumer insights for sustainable communication and innovation. A group of committed and motivated consumers is ready to answer all kinds of consumer issues.

A variety of types of research are possible within the community, both quantitative and qualitative. The platform makes it possible to use all kinds of rich techniques such as photo assignments (e.g. store checks), collages and projective techniques. These possibilities are widely used in co-creation and idea generation, but also for the development and testing of communication and product concepts.

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Trade Deals Deployed to Encourage Brazil to Protect Rainforest

Brazil is under increasing pressure to do something about the many wildfires in the Amazon. France and Ireland want to stop a trade deal if President Bolsonaro doesn’t change his environmental policy. Finland wants to stop imports of Brazilian beef into Europe.

Using trade agreements to encourage countries to take action is a new phenomenon. In this way, governments can influence the sustainability of the products for sale domestically, even if they are produced elsewhere.

Our mission is to help accelerate the transition to a more sustainable food system, by including the consumer as equally relevant stakeholder.

We offer accessible and clear consumer insights that help all actors in the food chain to effectively support & seduce the consumer to make the sustainable food choice.

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