Labels providing information on the sustainability performance of goods and services are among the most established tools in sustainable consumption communication. But how effective are those labels? A research team led by Johann Majer including Daniel Fischer now offers a review that synthesizes the available empirical evidence from N=26 studies focusing on visual sustainability labels. The term “visual label” is used according to ISO 14024 (Type I) to distinguish those labels that use “seal” or “logo” from uncertified claims or other types of information provision.
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Labels providing information on the sustainability performance of goods and services are among the most established tools in sustainable consumption communication. But how effective are those #labels? In a new paper, we offer a review that synthesizes the available empirical evidence from N=26 studies focusing on visual sustainability labels. A short thread on the main insights.
We confined our review to “visual labels”. These are labels according to ISO 14024 (Type I) that use “seals” or “logos” (e.g., #Fairtrade, #UTZ, EU organic label, but also fictional logos designed for experiments) as compared to uncertified claims or other types of information provision. Most studies focused on food labels (e.g. coffee, chocolate). Only studies using control groups were included.
Overall, we found that labels do have positive effects on psychological and behavioral outcome variables. We also identified a number of moderator variables and categorized those into (a) individual factors of the consumer, (b) context factors in the purchasing situation, and (c) factors inherent in the label itself. We observed that little attention was paid to how labels interact with external factors and that the effects of labels were rarely studied in field settings.
What stood out was that only half of the studies explicitly used conceptual frameworks or theories from the social or behavioral sciences. Labeling research is among the more established fields in sustainable consumption communication. We were surprised by the prevalence of testing for direct effects (first-generation research) and had expected more second-generation research studying boundary conditions and processes influencing labels’ effectiveness.
What can be learned from our review for the use of visual labels in sustainable consumption communication? Concerned consumers seem to be the most appropriate target group. However, also less concerned consumers can be reached, e.g. by tailoring sustainability information to other motives (e.g. health). Another approach to sensitize less concerned consumers is to experiment with negative labeling (communicating unfavorable, unsustainable product attributes). Trust also plays a key role which explains why consumers favor independent third-party certification.
While our review substantiates the use of labeling, it also highlights the need to better understand how labels affect consumers, how they interact with other cues, when they backfire, and how negative labeling can be used effectively to promote sustainable consumption. Finally, labeling is just one approach that must be part of an integrative policy approach to change systems of production and consumption, rather than individual consumption alone.
Demand-side mitigation solutions such as changing peoples’ consumption behaviors can substantially help limit climate change (IPCC, 2022). Labelling schemes are a promising tool to promote more sustainable consumption behavior by reliably informing the consumers about the performance of a product regarding a range of environmental, ethical, or social aspects. However, labelling has been conceptualized in different ways, approached from various disciplinary backgrounds, examined through diverse research designs, and tested across manifold product categories and contexts. The present research synthesizes the dispersed empirical evidence on the effects of visual sustainability labels on consumer perception and behavior by systematically reviewing the literature. In a two-step screening process, a set of predetermined criteria was used to ultimately identify 26 eligible studies. We narratively and quantitatively synthesized the empirical findings. Our aggregated findings suggest that labels do have positive effects on psychological and behavioral outcome variables. In addition, we identify a number of important moderating variables that can be categorized as individual factors of the consumers, as context factors in the purchase situation, and as factors inherent in the label itself. However, the reviewed body of literature reveals deficiencies in studying interactions of labels and external factors and in studying actual behavior change in field settings. Based on these insights gained from the systematic review, we propose avenues for advancements in the field of research and highlight implications for promoting sustainable consumer behavior.
Majer, J. M., Henscher, H. A., Reuber, P., Fischer-Kreer, D., & Fischer, D. (2022). The effects of visual sustainability labels on consumer perception and behavior: A systematic review of the empirical literature. Sustainable Production and Consumption, 33, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.spc.2022.06.012