Do consumers make greener food choices through eco-labelling?

A popular instrument to achieve greener food choices by consumers are eco-labels. The effectiveness of this measure is, however, highly dependent on its specific implementation. A reduction of the label flood and the introduction of more comprehensive and reliable, multi-level-label could improve the label situation in Germany.

Sustainability Science
Social Sciences
Obst- und Gemüseauslagen in einem Supermarkt aus der Vogelperspektive

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Food impact and consumers' role

Considering the enormous impact the daily food consumption has on the environment, it is obvious that it is essential to address this area in the larger context of combating climate change and preserving the environment. About one third of the environmental impact of an average private household in the EU is produced by diet-related consumption patterns (REISCH et al. 2013, p. 11).

Next to production oriented approaches to reduce environmental damages induced by the food sector, a growing importance is attached to the consumer side. There is a great power in consumers' decision-making, but the crucial question is how to achieve more environment-friendly food choices of consumers. One popular instrument of consumer-oriented measures for impacting consumption choices are eco-labels, but their effectiveness is questioned; therefore the objective of the present work was to evaluate whether consumers make actually greener food choices based on the presence of eco-labels. A qualitative research approach with focus group interviews against the theoretical background of two behavioral theories (Theory of Planned Behavior and nudging theorem) was applied to analyze green food choices of consumers and the role of eco-labels in these choices.

In order to assess the potential of eco-labelling of food products on consumers’ behavior adequately, it was necessary to put it into a larger frame, with considerations of the food sector nowadays, food choices and environmental policy for greener food choices.

Complexity for consumers & environmental attributes as credence qualities

Changes in the whole food sector and globalization of food supply led to an increasing estrangement of the consumer from the origin and production of food (REISCH et al. 2013, p. 10). Therefore, the food industry nowadays is from a consumer’s perspective difficult to overview due to its multiple linkages. The complexity of the coherences makes it a complicated or almost impossible task for consumers to include considerations on foods’ environmental impact in everyday food choices.

Moreover, the consideration of the environmental attributes of food products - for instance the environmental impact of pesticides used in production, emissions from transportation, water use over the whole life cycle of the product etc. - shows that all these attributes are so-called "credence attributes" (DARBY and KARNI 1973, p. 68). As opposed to qualities as price and taste that one can directly search for or experience, the consumer is not able to evaluate the environmental attributes and needs to give credence to the information offered by the producers. Hence, an information asymmetry between producer and consumer is given (VON MEYER-HÖFER and SPILLER 2016, p. 77).

Policy options for greener food choices

Concerning the options against food-related ecological damages, the environmental policy toolkit – which means the political instruments that government authorities can implement in order to secure the environment – can generally present three approaches: “command-and-control regulation,[...] economic incentives, [...and] information provision” (RUSSELL et al. 2005, p. 4f). While the first two approaches try to affect behavior through an either prohibitive character or a change in financial conditions, the latter aims to inform actors about the ecological impacts of their decisions (SMEDDINCK 2011, p. 391). Through the correction of the above described information asymmetry the consumers' choices should be adjusted. This assumes that consumers are rational agents, who are supposed to be impacted by the provided information and align their behavior accordingly. However, this theoretical basis of the rational behavior model was criticized and the assumption that consumers decide “with perfect information processing capacity” and always target to maximize their utility was proven wrong (LEHNER et al. 2016, p. 167). Therefore, a new segment in the policy toolkit is added to the soft paternalism measures - the behavioral tools or the also so-called nudging approach. The behavioral category is based on a differing idea of human behavior that tries to take into account that “consumer decision-making is subject to a host of internal and external factors that bias decisions and over-turn preferences” (BIO INTELLIGENCE SERVICE 2012, p. 47).

Public authorities rather prefer soft policy tools and it can be noticed that information-based instruments are still “the most widely used policy tool to promote sustainable consumption” (LEHNER et al. 2016, p. 167). From the use of prohibitions and price mechanisms, it is rather restrained due to the "paradigm of free consumer choice”, the emotionally charged character of food-related issues and further social and cultural factors that are involved in the topic of nutrition (BIO INTELLIGENCE SERVICE 2012, p. 233f). Hard paternalism as for instance applied through obligatory vegetarian days, was so far not very promising in implementation (SPILLER and NITZKO 2015, p. 203f). 

Eco-labelling as an instrument of soft policy measures that ranges between the category of information and behavioral tools, is frequently applied and a well-liked tool due to its low depth of intervention and costs (JAHN et al. 2003, p. 3). It is often seen as “one of the most promising forms of environmental information policy" (THØGERSEN 2000, p. 286); however the question is whether it really leads to greener food choices of consumers. 

Eco-labels – characteristics and functioning

In order to answer this question, at first the theoretical concept of eco-labels has to be considered. Eco-labels can be defined as "tools to support consumers in making more sustainable consumption choices by providing details about the environmental performance of certain products” (BARBE et al. 2013, p. 342). There are multiple design and organization options for eco-labels as for example in terms of the ownership, the standard setter, the monitoring and auditing organization, which environmental standards they comply to, whether they are mandatory or voluntary, whether they offer positive, neutral or negative information, whether they are binary or multi-level labels and many more.

The objective of an eco-label to “fill the information gap” (STØ et al. 2005, p. 30) by providing simplified information and thereby making choices easier and reducing complexity for consumers is dependent on several conditions (EBERLE et al. 2011, p. 3). Awareness and understanding of the consumer, credibility, comprehensiveness and availability of the eco-label are some of these necessities.

Whether consumers perceive an eco-label as credible is often related to the involved actors and the organization of the certification and controlling processes (VON MEYER-HÖFER and SPILLER 2016, p. 80f). Studies have shown that third-party certification and government involvement increase the trust of consumers (SØNDERSKOV and DAUGBJERG 2011, p. 516). Moreover, the information content provided by an eco-label needs to be based on profound and verifiable criteria to obtain trustworthiness (VON MEYER-HÖFER and SPILLER 2013, p. 2). How consumers perceive the eco-label’s standards has impact on its credibility (JANSSEN and HAMM 2011, p. 38). It was also found, however, that different types of consumers perceive eco-labels in divergent ways (JANSSEN and HAMM 2014, p. 447). Furthermore, study results showed that consumers prefer more detailed, clear and complete information given by eco-labels (BARBE et al. 2013, p. 352).

The eco-label situation in Germany

Considering the current situation of eco-labelling on the German market, it can be noticed that the national platform label-online.de counts 225 labels for the category of food and drink from which 73 were categorized as "Bio- und Öko-Gütesiegel". This indicates the high relevance of organic labels in the section of eco-labels and shows a huge variety of eco-labels on the market. The eco-labels differ along various criteria. Some cover only a specific product range as the Marine Stewardship Council label (MSC) whereas others are more generally applicated. In terms of environmental criteria that are attested by eco-labels, it exists, as already mentioned, a high number of labels that signal an organic production. A single issue label concerning genetically modified products is the “Ohne Gentechnik” (no genetic engineering) label. Concerning multiple issue eco-labels there is no common eco-label that covers all ecological influences connected to a food product. Considering the question who is involved in the given eco-labelling schemes, from government side the German “Bio-Siegel” is predominant, but generally, the smallest share of eco-labels is state-operated. For the most part the concepts are private (VON MEYER-HÖFER and SPILLER 2013, p. 81).

As described, there are some findings that suggest that private eco-labels have an issue with gaining trust by consumers. Furthermore the high number of labels in total caused criticism referring to the label flood that leads to a “confusing amount of information” by which consumers feel overwhelmed (BARBE et al. 2013, p. 343). Additionally, there have been complaints that it is difficult to distinguish between credible information and advertising statements and suspicion of greenwashing was reported (EBERLE et al. 2011, p. 1). The issue of information overload is associated with other problems as consumers’ lack of understanding and recognition of eco-labels. All these problems can lead in the end to a shortage of use of eco-labels by consumers.

Empirical analysis

In light of this overview on the eco-label situation in Germany the empirical analysis of the present work focused on evaluating whether given eco-labels of the German food sector can promote greener food choices. As an exemplary sector, the organic food sector was chosen, because organic labelling schemes are numerously given and a recognition of consumers was supposed to be rather likely. Since consumer behavior is crucial for the success of eco-labels, behavioral theories – the Theory of Planned Behavior and the nudging theorem - represented the basis for the analysis. A qualitative in-depth evaluation of consumers’ behavior in terms of their general organic purchasing behavior and subsequently the perception of three exemplary organic labels were the core of the analysis. Three types of organic labels were included: the state-operated German “Bio-Siegel”, an organic label of a farmers‘ association – the “Demeter” label and one private organic label, established by a company – the “Alnatura” label. The empirical analysis also enclosed various types of organic purchasers that were grouped as regular, occasional and seldom organic purchasers. To approach the main research interests of consumers’ drivers for organic product choice in general and perceptions of the specific organic labels, focus group discussions were carried out. Three discussion groups with each five participants took place. Selected results and inferences are presented in the following.


Background of the research work

The analysis of eco-labels for food products from a consumers' perspective was done in the context of a master thesis at the Faculty of Life Science of the Humboldt-University. Many thanks are dedicated to the great support from Prof. Peter H. Feindt and Dr. Astrid Häger of the division of Agriculture and Food Policy at the Albrecht Daniel Thaer-Institute. The article focuses on selected parts of the research work and leaves out large passages, especially on the theories due to illustrative reasons. Moreover, it needs to be taken into account that because of the qualitative research design involving only a small number of participants, merely indications for improvement are inferred. Hence no generalizations can be made.

Organic purchasing

In terms of the organic purchasing behavior of the focus group participants it was striking that their choice rarely is based on a profound knowledge on the principles of organic farming. Overall, it was recognizable that there is some knowledge on the criteria of organic farming, however the participants were not familiar with the exact principles according to the EU law on organic production and some ideas of the participants exceeded the actual principles. The inclusion of social standards in the perception of participants indicates the relevance of this subject for the consumers and the topic was addressed again in the discussions on the specific organic labels. Other assumed criteria that are exceeding the actual principles referred to environment-friendly packaging and resource- and energy-conserving processing methods. Comparing the different types of organic purchasers no salient differences between regular, occasional and seldom organic shoppers could be determined in this sample.

The drivers and barriers to purchase organic food products were derived from the three dimensions of the Theory of Planned Behavior – attitude, subjective norm and perceived behavioral control (AJZEN 1991, p. 182). The favorable attitudes that were named by the participants referred mostly to aspects as environment protection, health-related thoughts and quality aspects. Unfavorable attitudes were more often named by occasional and seldom organic purchasers and enclosed aspects as distrust in the organic quality of the product or the attitude that the given organic standards are too low or incomplete and therefore it makes no difference what product is purchased. In terms of the exemplary product category - pasta products - that was chosen for methodological reasons, the role of subjective norms was rather seen subordinate, however, strongly perceived for animal products. Important referent persons or groups can have a strong impact whether animal products as milk, eggs or meat are bought in organic quality. A high relevance of the last dimension, the perceived behavioral control – which refers to the level of control over a certain behavior -, was found through the hindering factors of availability and price of organic products corresponding to the typical barriers found in research (AERTSENS et al. 2009, p. 1157).

Consumers’ perception of organic labels

With the help of pictures of pasta products showing each one of the analyzed organic labels, the focus group participants discussed the three labels. The perception of the different labels was analyzed along three elements: familiarity with each label, knowledge on the standards as well as organization form and subjective assessment of the label. The subjective assessment of the labels encloses several aspects that were derived from literature: The affective element trust and the cognitive elements “perception of the underlying standards and control system” (JANSSEN and HAMM 2012, p. 13) were included as well as consumers’ assessment of the information amount and design (TEISL 2002, SIRIEIX et al. 2013).

Differences found in the familiarity with the labels of the various organic purchasers were according to the literature indications: Regular organic purchasers were familiar with all labels, seldom organic purchasers were rather unfamiliar or insecure. Only 12 participants being familiar with the German “Bio-Siegel” was somehow divergent from study findings from VON MEYER-HÖFER and SPILLER in which 95,3% were familiar with the German “Bio-Siegel” (2013, p .4). The familiarity of all consumers with the “Alnatura” label can be ascribed to its presence as a brand and supermarket chain. Being familiar with an organic label was found to be an essential part of the perception, as participants who were unfamiliar with a label were not able to make further usage of it.

Findings on the label knowledge of the consumers showed generally moderate or low knowledge of the actual standards and organization forms, however, slightly better understanding by regular organic purchasers as SCHLEENBECKER and HAMM also described (2013, p. 428). Knowledge on standards was mostly vague or connected to apparently most salient standards that enclosed for “Demeter” mainly the ideologically induced standards and also social standards. In relation to the other organic labels the German “Bio-Siegel” was described several times as having weaker or minimum standards. Besides, the inspection procedure was perceived lax and the organization behind the label, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Food was unknown. In terms of the “Altnatura” label several times the standards were described as medium and seen in-between the “Demeter” label and the German “Bio-Siegel”. It was consensus in all discussion groups that the organization behind the label is the company “Alnatura” itself. Especially in case of the German “Bio-Siegel” and the “Demeter” label it was noticeable that some consumers assumed that stricter standards are always connected to more severe inspection procedures, a result that is similar to findings from JANSSEN and HAMM (2011, p. 36). It also seemed that the consumers were not fully aware of the difference between label owner, standard setter and monitoring organization.

The effect of label knowledge can be discussed in light of these results. DAUGBJERG et al. argued that higher knowledge of production standards increases the effectiveness of organic labels (2014, p. 571). However, the also low understanding of regular organic consumers in the present study suggests that objective knowledge might not be of utmost importance. Rather the subjective knowledge and especially the most accessible thoughts are essential. For instance in terms of the “Demeter” label the ideological background and the vague description of strict standards, also including social standards was most present for the consumers and led to a positive assessment.

Results on the third dimension of consumers’ perception of eco-labels, the subjective assessment of the labels, varied discernibly between the different consumer types. The German “Bio-Siegel” was most frequently evaluated positive by occasional organic purchasers, negative comments were mostly made by regular organic consumers. It was evaluated negative due to its as low perceived standards from which bad organic quality was deduced especially from regular organic shoppers. This type of consumer also reported skepticism and distrust against the label. Occasional consumers, however, still perceived a certain organic quality. Other positive comments referred to the design of the “Bio-Siegel”. Positive assessments of the “Demeter” label were equally made by regular and occasional organic purchasers, seldom purchasers slightly made more negative comments. It was assessed positive due to its strict standards that were perceived as complete and holistic. This perception was closely intertwined with the high trust that was reported towards the “Demeter” label. But at the same time, the standards were also perceived negatively due to an adverse assessment of the ideological background and the automatically expected higher price. Seldom shoppers also criticized most often the “Alnatura” label whereas occasional shoppers assessed it most positively. The “Alnatura” label was mainly assessed positively due to its clear information presentation and positive associations to the brand and the supermarket chain. Several comments also referred positive to its “in-between” status, between the “Bio-Siegel” and “Demeter” label. Such an “in between” perception of other organic labels (“Bioland” and “Naturland” label) between “Demeter” label and the German “Bio-Siegel” was also found by JANSSEN and HAMM (2011, p. 37). The aspect that “Alnatura” is a self-declared label was especially perceived negatively, corresponding to findings from SIRIEIX (2013, p. 150) and the EUROPEAN COMMISSION (2009, p. 29) which showed that environmental claims by companies were rejected.

Discussion on food products’ environmental impact and information provision

To complement the analysis on the drivers of consumers’ organic purchasing and labels’ perceptions the discussion participants were invited to speak about food products’ impact on the environment and the information provision on it more generally.

In several comments the complex coherences of food production and consumption were described and the accompanying overload of consumers was discussed. Participants stressed that through numerous connections and causal relations many products bring along environmental damages and consumers are hardly capable to overview the consequences of their choices.

The participants argued in order to be able to decide correctly despite the complexity, the individual consumer would have to spend a lot of time to inform him- or herself about the causal relationships and backgrounds. This assessment already indicates that the perception on information regarding environmental impacts of food products from the participants was rather negative. Participants mentioned that the high complexity of the food system is not appropriately translated into information for consumers, that moreover there is a lack of information.

Skepticism was further strengthened by the large number of private organic labels from supermarkets and a generally perceived ‘label flood’. The high complexity of the food sector and the connected general confusion how to make food choices was not seen solved by the present labelling schemes. In this context the missing standards were a particular issue for consumers, as single issue labels cannot display the food sector’s complexity adequately. Hence, the organic labels were perceived as somehow simplifying the complexity for organic choices, but were not perceived as helpful in order to display environmental attributes of food products holistically.

In terms of desires or ideas for improving the information provision, the discussion participants mentioned several aspects. Integrating topics on food products’ environmental impact in education and addressing it in public contexts was demanded by various participants. Comments on the source of environmental information were in favor of governmental structures whereas the economic sector only played a minor role. Trustworthiness was seen as essential and was brought up many times in the discussion. In terms of the label situation, a limitation of the number of eco-labels on the market and having labels that cover a larger scope of environmental impacts instead of single issue labels were demands in the discussion.


Considering these findings, it is evident that eco-labels have an essential role in terms of overcoming consumer distrust, ensuring environmental-friendly quality and communicating environmental benefits of food products. The analysis allowed to draw inferences in terms of decisive elements for eco-labels. Thus several starting points for improvements in order to achieve greener choices can be formulated:

Both, the analysis of drivers for purchasing organic food products as well as the label perception showed the importance of label standards covering more than just single aspects. Besides, the discussion about the complexity of today’s food sector showed that the consumers are alert to multiple environmental impacts from food products which they would like to include in their choices. A multidimensional label including various environmental and also social impacts of food products could meet this requirement. The integration of several levels and not just a binary distinction from the label could provide adequate choice possibilities for different shoppers. In terms of the design and information presentation, a clear label design that communicates specific information about environmental impacts is necessary. At best it makes knowledgeable usage of heuristics and applies by this findings from behavioral research. This would mean to go beyond typical organic labels with practice-based standards and offer more tangible information to the consumers. The significance of familiarity with the label in combination with a low understanding of the standards and control of labels indicated that a more extensive information provision on the label and its organization itself is necessary. As consumers trust in labels is linked to the source of information, frequent rejections of ecolabels from companies can be taken as an indication to more severe state-imposed regulations for eco-labels. A smaller number of labels that rely on trustworthy organizations could enhance consumers’ general opinions on eco-labels.

Lastly, it is evident that further environmental information is needed on which basis eco-labels can work to achieve more environment-friendly food choices. An expansion of information provisions through measures like campaigns or educative adjustments are necessary for this.

These are just some implications of the present analysis how eco-labelling could lead to more environment-friendly food choices that are based on the findings of a small and specific sample. Nevertheless, it gives some valuable insights for chances to improve the German eco-label situation for food products and thereby supports consumers as green decision makers.




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