How Product Certification Can Help Consumers Make More Sustainable Choices during Tough Economic Times

Social and Environmental Values Increasingly Drive Consumers’ Choices, According to New Research

For the past year, inflation rates have been rising in many parts of the world and inflation forecasts have been consistently revised upwards. GlobeScan’s research also shows that 57 percent of consumers select food price increases as one of the real impacts of climate change on their lives.

This constant economic stress puts pressure on consumers who are forced to make trade-offs between buying products that align with their values and saving money for necessities.

Now is an opportune time to look into the consumer aspiration-action gap and the role that product certifications can play in bridging this gap in a context of high inflation through the lens of two consumer studies which we recently shared during a webinar with Fairtrade International:

The Aspiration-action Gap Persists in Times of Inflation

With inflation and the threat of a potential recession looming, the increased cost of living continues to affect consumers all over the world.

GlobeScan research shows that consumers believe that sustainable products cost more than regular items and that they have become more expensive in the past year. There has been a slight decline in consumers’ willingness to pay more for products or brands that improve society or the environment, a trend observed by Kate Nkatha Ochieng, Commercial Director of Fairtrade Africa who says that in Africa, there is an increasing trend for consumers’ decisions to be driven by value for money above sustainability concerns.”

In this context, a significant gap persists between consumers’ aspirations and actions to be more sustainable as they continue to be almost twice as likely to express a strong desire to live more sustainable lifestyles than to make the major changes in their lives that are needed. This gap is even wider among younger people and those with less buying power.

The Role of Certification in Facilitating Consumers’ Sustainability Behavior

In this difficult environment, certifications can play a role in helping bridge the aspiration-action gap while giving reassurance about a product’s sustainability claims.

GlobeScan’s Healthy & Sustainable Living research has found that certifications are the primary way in which consumers judge whether or not a product is environmentally responsible, above assessing the ingredients, the materials used for the packaging, and even the brand itself

However, as noted by Julieta Tourne, the head of communications and brand at Fairtrade International, there has been a “proliferation of certifications or campaigns about sustainable products” in many markets over recent years. So, how do you cut through the noise and build the necessary trust that unlocks consumer behavior?

GlobeScan research shows that the more familiar consumers are with a certification/label, the more they are likely to trust it, meaning awareness-building efforts are key. Trust in certifications is also driven by transparency and an understanding of the goals/vision behind the labels. For example, our research for Fairtrade shows that consumers’ recognition and understanding of Fairtrade’s role in social justice is crucial to the certification’s trusted reputation. In 2023, GlobeScan found that 86 percent of consumers who recognized the Fairtrade logo had some, or a lot, of trust in it. The impact that a Fairtrade mark has on consumer perceptions of a product is very positive, showing how important trusted certifications are to consumers in their sustainability choices.

Who’s Responsible and What’s Next?

While finding ways for consumers to trust that their extra spending on sustainable products is in line with their sustainability aspirations is important, consumers cannot be held wholly responsible for change.

Consumers recognize the multifaceted culpability for positive changes for sustainability and do not see themselves as the primary agents of change for sustainable practices, with an increasing number (36% in 2022) saying that individuals cannot do much to save the environment despite a strong desire to do more.

Consumers also note that national governments, international bodies, and large companies have a vital role to play in the improvement of human rights and protecting the environment. This means that it is important that consumers feel the burden is shared equitably and to see other agents of change playing their part.

In Brief:

  • Consumers have a strong desire to live more sustainably and certifications such as the Fairtrade mark can help them bridge the gap between desire and action.
  • For certifications and labels to achieve their true potential in helping consumers take action on sustainable behaviors, it is important to raise awareness, ensure transparency, and build an understanding of their mission and impact among consumers.
  • However, it is also equally important for brands carrying certifications or labels to show that they are doing “their part” in building a better future and that the sole responsibility for it to happen is not left to consumers alone – especially in an economically challenging environment.