Call for better labelling to support ethical consumption

Monday, 14 March, 2011

It’s not cost that stops consumers from buying according to their conscience. It’s simply a lack of clear information on the product label.

Research from Melbourne Business School (MBS) has found that if a product clearly reflects factors which impact ethical consumerism on its label, consumers will favour that product over others.

As a result of her research in this area, MBS Professor Jill Klein is calling for manufacturers to improve their labelling to provide consumers with a more informed choice and to increase sales.

Professor Klein based her research on a series of experiments performed at the Melbourne Zoo between April and June last year. Zoo visitors were asked to select between a food product that did not contain the orangutan-unfriendly palm oil and a virtually equivalent alternative that contained vegetable oil.

According to current FSANZ regulations, palm oil does not have to be labelled as such on food product packaging, but instead may be included on the list of ingredients under the term ‘vegetable oil’. Therefore, it is uncertain whether a product that is made with vegetable oil contains palm oil as a raw ingredient in its manufacture.

Professor Klein says that in one study, 118 zoo visitors were asked to fill in a survey asking about personal views on issues such as ethical consumption, wildlife preservation, political activism and human-like characteristics of primates. She added that prior research has found the more human-like the characteristics, the more we identify with primates.

“The same visitors also got to choose a bag of either Red Rock potato chips, made with sunflower oil, or Smith’s potato chips, made with vegetable oil.

“Our results showed that more participants choose the Red Rock chips when the packaging had either the orangutan-friendly sticker on it or an informational sheet next to it, compared to when there was no clear indication present about the product’s palm oil content.”

In a follow-up study, 96 zoo visitors had to select either a Woolworths Select fruit bar, made with canola oil, or a Kellogg’s K-Time Twists fruit bar containing palm oil (which is explicitly indicated on that product’s list of ingredients).

Once again, Professor Klein found the leading driver in a participant’s product choice was whether they were able to diagnose if their selected fruit bar contained palm oil.

“Those who saw the information telling them which fruit bar contained palm oil were more likely to select the Woolworths bar,” she says. “The visibility of the information was what mattered most.”

Professor Klein believes that these results suggest that allowing consumers to easily determine whether palm oil is in the food product under consideration along with increasing awareness of the palm oil issue among consumers are the two most significant factors in purchasing the ethical version of the item.

She added that it was also worth noting that consumers’ views on ethical consumption, wildlife preservation, political activism or the humanisation of primates did not have any statistically significant effect on choosing the palm oil-free version of the product.

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