According to the United Nations (Hoballah & Averous, 2015), sustainable consumption is an integral part in ensuring that human actions stay within our planet’s capacity and therefore in considering the living conditions of future generations as well. As consumers, our individual buying-decisions can help fasten sustainable development in various industries making it an interesting research topic for us. Our first blog post series will summarize our research regarding quality seals, clean labels and product packaging design in the field of sustainability as well as the consumers‘ perceptions of such. Ultimately, we want to know, whether consumers accept and use quality seals in the purchase decisions. Further, we will outline implications for companies. While doing so, we will recap studies and their results in relation to each topic.
Before diving into the research results, the following will give an introduction to packaging design and labels. The packaging design of a product serves multiple purposes (cf. Bäumer & Denning, 2015):
1) it leads the consumers’ attentiveness,
2) it is aesthetic (emotional effect),
3) it communicates the product’s characteristics related to its functional usage (e.g., quality, performance, naturalness) and symbolic usage, and
4) it increases the ease of use.
Hence, the packaging design greatly impacts the consumers’ decision-making at the point of sale (POS).
The personal consciousness for health, sustainability, and environment has increased over the past years. Yet, there is a high number of comparable products at the POS, leading to an increased need for information in the buying process for consumers specifically looking for sustainable products.
Labels and quality seals as part of the packaging design are one way to communicate information about products at the POS, referring to their quality, origin, ingredients, production, and socially relevant conditions among other aspects, which ultimately aid the consumers in evaluating and choosing products (Sander et al., 2016). Thus, labels and seals are especially utilized in the field of sustainable products.
Quality seals refer to symbols, graphics and/or written identification, which are allocated by recognized institutions if the product meets the respective requirements. One prominent example of a quality seal is the European and German seal for organic food (German: Bio-Siegel), which relates to requirements concerning the cultivation of vegetables and fruit as well as the keeping and feeding of animals (Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft, 2022). Additionally, this seal contains regulations regarding additives not to be utilized in food products.
Clean Labels are considered a type of seal, however, there are no institutions awarding them. It is further important to note, that for our purposes, clean labeling refers to a label on the front of the packaging, expressing that certain ingredients are not part of the product. The requirements for clean labels are comparatively low. In fact, they partially reward complying with minimum requirements, which have to be fulfilled anyways.
Clearly, it makes sense for consumers to understand what exactly quality seals mean, if using them for buying-decisions. The seals’ requirements are publicly available (e.g., on this website), but one can assume that most consumers do not intensively research this information but rather act heuristically. Yet, this is only practical if the consumers’ assumptions about a quality seal match the actual meaning of it.
So in this post, we will focus on the question what quality seals communicate to the consumer and what they associate with seals. Is it possible to communicate sustainability through quality seals?
This post is based on three different studies carried out by students in our business psychology program. In her research, Anita Rabko conducted a quantitative online experiment with 214 participants to examine the influence of “natural” product information on the consumers’ likelihood to buy cosmetic products. We have already reported Kathrin Railjan’s research in greater detail in one of our earlier blog posts. She identified the key factors influencing the acceptance of green personal care products based on data from 321 online survey respondents. In addition, Leoni Kinner carried out a quantitative online survey with 109 respondents, focusing on the consumers’ understanding of quality seals and their corresponding evaluation of food products.
Generally, products with a quality seal or clean label are more accepted by consumers, i.e. they have significantly better product ratings as well as a higher likelihood of purchase than products without them (Kinner, 2022; Rabko, 2021). Furthermore, the studies found that the willingness to buy natural products is particularly driven by the factors environmental awareness, environmental value or protection and health value (Rabko, 2021; Railjan, 2021), whereby egoistic motives (e.g., health value) seem to have slightly higher relevance than altruistic values (e.g., environmental protection) (Railjan, 2021).
Even though acceptance of products increases with quality seals and clean labels, consumers do not have a strong understanding of what labels on a food product say about its production and composition (Kinner, 2022), most likely because as previous studies found, consumers perceive the variety and number of quality seals available today as overwhelming (Buxel, 2018; Verbraucher Initiative e.V., 2016). The quality seal is usually presented in a purely pictorial form, hence a consumer cannot find out directly from the product what a quality seal explicitly states. Besides, the barriers to obtain this information seem too high when making a purchase decision at the POS (e.g., at a supermarket). Interestingly, it appears that even consumers with high cognitive involvement in quality seals are just as uninformed about them as consumers with low involvement (Kinner, 2022).
More importantly, however, Kinner’s study (2022) further found that food products with a quality seal are rated worse after the participants were informed about what the quality seals actually mean compared to before this information was provided. In fact, acceptance for these products significantly decreases to a level of “normal” products. Most likely, the better evaluation of a product with a quality seal compared to products without them is not based on the consumers’ existing knowledge, but on an overly positive image of quality seals in the food sector.
Recommendations for consumers
1) Keep in mind that some of your purchasing decisions are based on misconceptions, especially when making a quick decision at the POS.
2) Make use of offers such as siegelklarheit.de or label-online.de in order to inform yourself about the meanings of seals on products you frequently purchase.
While focusing on the consumers’ understanding of quality seals, we found that they represent sustainability. Yet, knowledge about quality seals is limited, but when this missing information is provided, acceptance of the products decreases. In the next blog post of the series, we will take a look at our research’s most essential findings for companies and producers.
Bäumer, T., & Dennig, B. (2015). Warum Design mehr als nur „hübsch“ sein muss. https://www.marktforschung.de/hintergruende/fachartikel/marktforschung/warum-design-mehr-als-nur-huebsch-sein-muss/
Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft. (2022). Auf einen Blick: Informationen zum Bio-Siegel, Ökolandbau.de. https://www.bmel.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/DE/Broschueren/bio-siegel-verbraucher.html
Buxel, H. (2018). Prüf- und Gütesiegel bei Lebensmitteln: Verbrauchereinstellungen, Bekanntheit und Einfluss auf die Produktwahrnehmung sowie die Kauf- und Zahlungsbereitschaft.
Hoballah, A. & Averous, S. (2015). UN Chronicle: Goal 12—Ensuring Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns: An Essential Requirement for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/goal-12-ensuring-sustainable-consumption-and-production-patterns-essential-requirement-sustainable
Kinner, L. (2022). Gütesiegel auf Lebensmitteln – eine empirische Studie zum Verständnis aus Sicht von Konsument*innen [Unpublished bachelor’s thesis]. Hochschule für Technik Stuttgart – University for Applied Sciences.
Rabko, A. (2021). Natürlichkeit verkauft? – Der Einfluss von ‚natürlichen‘ Produktinformationen auf der Verpackung auf die Kaufbereitschaft bei Kosmetikprodukten [Unpublished bachelor’s thesis]. Hochschule für Technik Stuttgart – University for Applied Sciences.
Railjan, K. (2021). Green Beauty – empirische Analyse der Kauf- und Preisbereitschaft von Konsumierenden sowie Einsatz geeigneter Werbeappelle zur wirksamen Vermarktung von Naturpflegeprodukten [Unpublished master’s thesis]. Hochschule für Technik Stuttgart – University for Applied Sciences.
Sander, M., Heim, N. & Kohnle, Y. (2016). Label-Awareness: Wie genau schaut der Konsument hin? – Eine Analyse des Label-Bewusstseins von Verbrauchern unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Lebensmittelbereichs. Berichte über Landwirtschaft – Zeitschrift für Agrarpolitik und Landwirtschaft, 94(2). https://doi.org/10.12767/BUEL.V94I2.120.G283
Verbraucher Initiative e.V. (2016). Wirkung von Siegeln auf das Verbraucherverhalten. https://verbraucher.org/media/file/1151.VI_Wirkung_Label_auf_Verbraucherverhalten_Ergebnisbericht__2016.pdf