‘Natural’ Labelling Meets Consumer Scepticism

Consumers in the market for eco-friendly products are sceptical about the term ‘natural’, and two-thirds want to see a uniform standard to certify natural claims, according to a new survey from natural and organic marketing firm Mango Sprouts Marketing.

The poll asked 1,000 natural product consumers about their organic shopping habits in an effort to get an idea of upcoming trends for the sector in 2011. Very important to know as the global market for organic food and drink product is recovering from the economic slowdown, with revenues estimated to have approached USD 60 billion last year, and sales to expand at higher growth rates from 2011 onwards.

Manufacturers of organic foods and beverages must adhere to strict standards in order to be allowed to claim to be organic, the US Food and Drug Administration has, however, declined to define the word ‘natural’. Consequently it is a Wild West, as the use of the term ‘natural’ on food packaging is rapidly increasing as consumers are seeking products that are free from artificial additives.
‘Natural’ was the number one claim on new product packaging last year, appearing on 23 percent of newly launched food and beverage products, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database.

Although the term ‘natural’ is not defined, Organic Monitor, a specialist research company, sees growing convergence between organic and other eco-labels. Growing consumer demand for ethical and ecological products is leading food companies to consider various eco-labels. Leading certification agencies are responding by integrating sustainability values into their organic standards.

Notwithstanding the findings by Organic Monitor, Mango Sprouts Marketing found that one in three consumers surveyed (34 percent) were ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ confident in ‘natural’ labelling, while two in three (65 percent) said they would like to see the term certified, for both processes and ingredients. Another 25 percent of those surveyed said they were ‘somewhat interested’ in certification of ‘natural’.

But who is monitoring? A third (33 percent) said they would favour ‘natural’ labelling certification by an independent non-profit organization and/or a government standard. Fewer than one in four supported an industry-sponsored standard (23 percent), while 18 percent said they would prefer retailer certification.

The findings are in line with the results of other market research in this area, which has suggested that many consumers are confused about the precise definition of ‘natural’. A survey conducted last year by market research organization the Shelton Group, for example, found that more consumers favoured natural product claims (31 percent) over organic claims (14 percent) as evidence of a product’s eco-credentials, despite the strict regulation of the term ‘organic’ and the Wild West for ‘natural’.

The results of the surveys carried out in the USA are in line with the ones executed in Latin America. For example: 44% of the Brazilians, who said their purchases are influenced by green credentials, do believe that companies are ‘green-washing’, claiming sustainability only from a marketing point of view and not, in reality, implementing environmental projects in their production processes.

That all is the result of a broad gap in the way consumers and companies think about and approach sustainability. Consumer understanding of ‘sustainability’, or simply said: ‘what is green/natural’ and ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) is often very different from companies’ understanding of the terms, according to a new report from Hartman Group.

The Hartman Group’s report, “Marketing Sustainability 2010: Bridging the Gap Between Consumers and Companies”, found that consumer understanding of the term ‘sustainable’ is changing, moving away from more literal or dictionary meanings, such as ‘ability to last over time’ and ‘self-reliance’, toward wider concepts like ‘green’, ‘responsible farming and production methods’, and ‘conserving natural resources’.

“Industry typically places great emphasis on energy and the environment projecting an image of being stewards of the planet,” the report states. “But consumers are focused on more personal benefits like whether a product is healthy for their families or how a company invests in the welfare of their local community; above all consumers are looking for companies that are good citizens.”

Apparently the captains of industry haven’t grasp  it yet. Sustainability is for the 21st century, what technology was for the 20th century. Sustainability is the ‘lifebuoy’ of capitalism. Imagine how much investment is needed for the reconstruction of the world into a sustainable model.
Every investor’s dream. We have a long way to go.

Note: EcoLabel Index catalogued 373 ecolabels. Visit their website and enjoy the creativity in design. Whether they present real substance is another matter.

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© Weslley Murylo De Souza Steeman

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