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Eats complicated: understanding green food labels

TPB’s Mabi David is here to help you, and your customers,  make sense of eco-claims and green food labels.

Organic. Artisanal. Free-range. Local. Ethical. Fairtrade. Wind made. Real.

Check out any supermarket aisle, and you’ll find it awash with such eco-labels and sustainability claims, all vying for the attention—and cash—of the more conscious consumer.

Credence claims are designed to communicate how a product has been produced, packaged, distributed, and even how it may be disposed of in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. As such, they reflect an important development on the power of consumers. If independently verified by reputable bodies, they provide consumers with effective shorthand for supporting businesses aligned with their values and establish stronger business/producer and consumer relationships.

Yet the sprawling value chains of global production systems make it impossible for consumers to check each and every claim to make sure they are legitimate, let alone more sustainable/greener, before making their selections.

And there’s the rub. Practically unverifiable, credence claims, especially trendy but vague ones, can be easily made despite lacking any meaning or substance. How can the packaging proclaim “all natural” in bold font when the bag of salty snacks in one’s hands is obviously processed? Why does canned tomato sauce say “fresh” when it is, well, canned? What does “ethically made” exactly mean? Brandished on labels and bandied about, a lot of these terms are unregulated, and when cleverly deployed they can lend a halo of credibility to brands without the heavy lifting.

With 463 eco-label indexes across 25 industries worldwide, approved and appropriate wording is a vast terrain that can be difficult to navigate. This can get especially staggering for the food and beverage sector, where a third of the total eco-labels may be found—excluding the “wild west” of unverifiable claims that dominate the sector. Used by food manufacturers, claims such as “natural” or “fresh” are intended “to magnify the desirability of a product,” says Walter Willett, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in an article for Consumer Reports on misleading food labels. “Such claims are often carefully chosen to emphasize healthy-sounding information about a food—while leaving out information about a food’s unhealthy qualities.”

Credence claims can hold significant risks for greenwashing (unintentionally, or otherwise) if they are confusing, misleading or unsubstantiated, so businesses must be more responsible and prudent when using them for describing and marketing their product.

Credence claims can hold significant risks for greenwashing (unintentionally, or otherwise) if they are confusing, misleading or unsubstantiated, so businesses must be more responsible and prudent when using them for describing and marketing their product. At worst these misleading labels, especially when it comes to food products, can lead to health risks for the consumers.

A good place to start is to identify which claims can be made and which ones to avoid. Businesses should work with their sustainability, legal, or communications advisors to make sure that they do not use credence claims that do not mean anything.

Familiar terms like “Fairtrade”, “Rainforest Alliance”, and “Non-GMO Project Verified” are terms or labels that that cannot be used without independent verification. Regulated terms, whether by the government or industry, signal to consumers that the information or description found on the packaging or label is correct and matches the content.

Conversely, well-worn terms like “natural”, “real”, fresh”, and even “good” do not really mean anything but are used solely because of their positive associations in consumers’ minds. A 2005 joint publication by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization Codex Alimentarius Commission on Misleading Food Claims remains a relevant resource on the different types of misleading communications and examples of each, such as the omission of material information and the various ways claims can be misleading.

It is also advisable for businesses to create a policy document on their use of credence claims. Policy guidelines on the use of eco-labels and sustainability statements fall under the product labelling guidelines of a company. It becomes essential, especially among businesses that have invested in a sustainability strategy or programme and want to communicate their good work to their stakeholders without it being inadvertently undermined by a misleading message on one’s label.

A labelling policy typically includes:

  • What goes on the label in terms of contents, instructions, warnings, information by law, and price;
  • Design guidelines, including font type, style, and size, to ensure legibility.
  • All applicable domestic and international laws and regulations on labelling and markings in countries of operation and markets;
  • The scope of the policy and the departments responsible for its implementation and control;
  • The procedures/workflow involved and forms needed in the preparation, approval, verification, and communication/dissemination.

A section on credence claims and self-declarations must address/include the following:

  • Various ways to substantiate claims such as document procedures, use of certified ingredients, use of validated test methods;
  • A complete list of terms to avoid;
  • A clear format and accurate language for communicating the credence claim to highlight what’s relevant, and avoid “halo effect” or information overload;
  • Correct translations in different languages, if needed.

For further guidance, the International Chamber of Commerce provides a downloadable ICC Marketing Code as a global reference point and framework for marketing self-regulation “to ensure legal, honest, decent and truthful communications and practices,” along with specific frameworks on responsible food and beverage marketing as well as responsible environmental marketing communications.

Businesses can also use the US Federal Trade Commission’s “Green Guides,” designed to help communications and marketing professionals when making environmental marketing claims. First issued in 1992 and updated in 2012, “The guidance also discusses how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims and how marketers can substantiate or qualify these claims. Also available is the ISO Standard on Self-declared Environmental Claims (ISO 14021:2016), which focuses on how best to make a statement in a way that is meaningful and useful to a consumer, should a claim be made.”

Lastly, companies must help promote better consumer understanding of product labelling and credence claims. There are opportunities for consumer education programmes and support for meaningful label legislation at the product, brand, company, market, and industry levels.

More than a sales and marketing tool to help a product stand out from a sea of choices in the supermarket aisle, effective and correctly used labels and substantiated claims promote transparency and allow your consumers to make informed choices. Every dollar people spend on your products gives you insight into your customers’ desires and preferences, and allows you to know your customers better. Good labelling creates connections that can shape the market for more sustainable products, incentivizing continuous corporate commitment to responsible business and possibly shifting entire industries towards more sustainable practices.



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