Food security: demand, consumption and waste - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

3  Supporting effective consumer choices

23. Consumer choices are not made in a vacuum but reflect needs and desires shaped by cultural norms and values, which are in turn influenced by messages from many interested parties. These include commercial bodies such as producers and retailers but also public bodies including the Government, local authorities and the NHS. These messages come in various forms and via many channels, including marketing and advertising, point-of-sale information such as labelling and in-store promotion, public information campaigns and personal contact. Brands also have a key role since consumer judgments on individual products are often based on their overall trust and support for a brand.

24. Many people say they are prepared to factor so-called 'public good' considerations into their food purchasing decisions with, for example, more than half of consumers saying they are willing to pay more for sustainable and ethical products.[44] The Sustainable Restaurant Association told us that sustainability was one factor amongst many considered by consumers when deciding where to eat out, and that in 2013 key topics of interest to their patrons had been food waste and health and nutrition.[45] However, whatever people may say matters to them, their day-to-day buying decisions frequently do not reflect their stated aspirations. For example 17% of consumers actively seek out information on a product's sustainability.[46] Translating broad aims into a specific choice is an imperfect art since, quite apart from any constraints over the cost and availability of products, a consumer will not only typically make a large number of food purchasing choices each week, but will also do so from a vast range of options. The bulk of food purchase decisions are made in stores and typically each product choice takes a consumer a matter of seconds, with more than a minute being unusual.[47] This means that point-of-sale information must be quickly assimilated if it is to influence decisions.

25. Tesco told us that it tried not to overwhelm customers with information, flagging up selected key aspects on labels, such as the catch method for tuna, but providing further information by other means for those wishing to check other factors such as provenance.[48] These included customer service contacts and the company website. It has also piloted 'nudge' tactics of placing healthy products near checkout areas to encourage customers to choose healthy products.[49] However, Tesco called on the Government to ensure consistency in sustainability labelling to give customers assurance that all products labelled as sustainable met the same standards. Tesco supported schemes such as the Red Tractor and Freedom Foods schemes which people trusted to give appropriate endorsement and confirmation.[50] The Minister told us that voluntary accreditation had been "very successful" and could drive consumer behaviour.[51] The Sustainable Restaurant Association uses a star system to rank its members, with about 10% of restaurants covered, so as to allow customers to decide where to eat based on an independent assessment of an establishment's sustainability.[52]

26. Food critic Jay Rayner argued that consumers had insufficient information, and considered that it would "require the involvement of Government" to make businesses be "very clear and upfront" about the sustainability of their products.[53] Mr Rayner deemed the "narrative" around sustainability to be founded on insubstantial metrics. It "venerated the small-scale and artisanal," and the use of words such as "local, seasonal and organic" did not stand up to examination (as indicators of sustainability).[54] He considered that a product should be labelled with its 'sustainability rating' both in terms of its own sustainability against similar products and against other types of product in the basket.[55] However, this would be complex to achieve. Although some environmental impacts of some products are measured and reported, there is no universally agreed metric currently available to assess the overall environmental impact of a product. Even assessment of a single factor, such as the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of a product—its 'carbon footprint'—is not simple. Indeed retailers such as Tesco have trialled this for a small selection of products but have not chosen to undertake it in a widespread manner because of the complexity of the task and the fact that consumers found the information confusing.[56] Defra told us it was working with EU counterparts to assess the potential to require the labelling of products with their environmental footprint.[57]

27. Consumers must make a large number of rapid decisions over myriad purchasing decisions every day, so any information provided at the point of sale must be clear and easily assimilated. We recommend that Defra review with retailers the effectiveness of labelling regulations in informing consumers on key provenance and sustainability factors. Price and brand are easy signals to interpret so drive many consumer decisions. We recommend that Defra seek with retailers to provide equally clear, informative and accurate signals on provenance, sustainability and nutrition.

28. Further the Department should commission research into the use of sustainability claims on products in order to assess the accuracy of such labelling. Defra should promote the use of accreditation schemes with high levels of quality assurance, such as Red Tractor, since they allow customers to make choices of products based on the scheme brand.

29. The growth of internet food shopping allows retailers to offer online shoppers a wide range of information to explore, should they wish to do so, before deciding which groceries to buy. Furthermore the internet offers the opportunity to peruse information in advance of visiting a store in person. Although research suggests that consumers only use online information to a limited extent, principally when undertaking longer-term planning or looking for inspiration rather than actually clicking through their order, nonetheless, some 30% of people surveyed by Morrisons looked online before going to a grocery store.[58]

30. Retailers who go beyond minimum regulatory requirements, such as those on labelling, in order to provide enhanced information about the provenance, health and sustainability of their products are able to better support consumers' choices. Pro-active retailers are using varied means of improving the information they provide to customers such as through provision in-store and online of detailed product information. Online purchasing offers the opportunity to provide consumers with in-depth information on the health and sustainability of products in easily accessible form which consumers can interrogate in varying levels of detail as they wish.

31. We recommend that Defra work with retailers and their representative bodies to promulgate best practice on online information provision such as tools to allow customers to search for the healthiest products when compiling an online order.

44   "Influencing consumer choice", ENDS report, November 2014, refers to the 2014 Nielsen survey "Doing well by doing good" Back

45   Q10 Back

46   Accenture and Havas Media, The consumer study: from marketing to mattering, June 2014, p9 Back

47   J Duncanm Herrington, Louis M Capella, Shopper reactions to perceived time pressure, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 23 Issue 12, pp.13-20 Back

48   Q114 Back

49   "Tesco unveils plans to push healthier options", The Grocer, October 2013 Back

50   Qq 116,117 See Red Tractor and Freedom Food webpages Back

51   Q170 Back

52   Q 11 See also Sustainable Restaurant Association webpages Back

53   Q7 Back

54   Q3 Back

55   Q8 Back

56   Q118 A carbon footprint will vary according to, for example, type of production system, efficiency of the farmer and location of production Back

57   Q183 [Gordon Friend] Back

58   Q43 Back

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Prepared 22 January 2015