Study: Eco-labeling encourages sales of all kinds of seafood, not just sustainable products

Shoppers will buy larger quantities of seafood – both sustainably certified and non-certified – when given information about eco-labels, new research has found. 

Using previous surveys that had evidenced that price and taste matter most to people when they buy seafood, and also that shoppers have a tendency to buy the same products as friends and family members, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) decided to test what would happen if store customers were told that lots of other shoppers bought Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) labeled seafood. 

Isabel Richter's doctoral research in environmental psychology at NTNU explored how people could be motivated to eat more sustainable seafood. She was granted permission to carry out an experiment in grocery stores in Norway and Germany.

Richter started by first putting up a sign with information about the MSC label on the seafood cooler. The cooler included salmon and cod both with and without the MSC label, with similar prices and weight.

In the next trials, she put up eight different signs with an image and label information – plus some wording telling shoppers that a percentage of the customers who shopped at that particular store chose to buy seafood with the MSC label.

Four of the signs said that more than 50 percent of the customers in the store selected eco-labeled products, while the other four signs said that less than 50 percent of customers did this.

In the Norwegian stores, about 70 percent of the products were not labeled. In Germany, the MSC eco-label is more widespread, so several products included it.

Richter and her colleagues assumed that more customers would choose MSC-labeled products in the stores where they were told that more than half of the other customers bought MSC-labelled seafood. But that wasn't how it went.

The signs had almost no effect on the sale of sustainable salmon and cod. Instead, the researchers discovered that the total sales of seafood products, both with and without eco-labeling, skyrocketed as long as the signs were on display at the coolers.

In the Norwegian stores, total seafood sales increased by 70 percent during the test period, while the increase in German stores was 30 percent.

"We wanted to motivate people to eat more sustainable seafood, but instead we motivated them to eat more of all kinds of seafood – including non-sustainable options. Eco-labeling is a very common form of sustainability communication, so it was important for us to find out what had really happened here," said Richter.

She created a virtual store, where participants in the study could freely choose different groceries from the shelves. They were given EUR 20 (USD 22.82) each to shop with. The items had no familiar brand names, but they had labels that communicated different messages, including that products were sustainable. Some had labels with nothing on them.

However, before the virtual shopping tour, participants were presented with a variety of messages – such as a picture of a fish and text stating whether the fish was healthy or unhealthy – without knowing that this was part of the experiment.

The researchers presumed that people would buy more of the products marked with a message, regardless of whether the message was positive or negative, if they had seen the product before. And that was what they saw.

"Even if you tell consumers that milk prevents osteoporosis, 'milk' is the only thing they remember," said Richter. "If customers are encouraged to buy organic cucumbers, it's just 'cucumbers' they want. If we recommend that people eat less of something and at the same time, we mention the entire product category, people are motivated to eat more of everything in that product category."

"We think what might work is to communicate what customers should do, and not what they shouldn't do." 

For example, Richter said if people were asked not to choose endangered tuna the next time, they buy sushi, they'll just want to have tuna.

Instead, it should be recommended that they choose sustainable scallops for their sushi, she said.

"Maybe the labels would have worked better if there'd been just one label for all sustainable products. So many different labels are out there now,” she said. "And even without the eco-label, fish already has so many other labels: the Nordic keyhole label, that it's antibiotic-free, locally produced, and so on. People don't know what all the different labels mean."


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