Food labels: perceived vs objective reality

Our partner Management Tools has looked into subjective perceptions of food labels and compared them with the objective reality. The findings show that active communication on sustainability is a must for anyone wanting to thrive in this rapidly growing market.

With more than 35 different food labels, including Naturaplan, Migros Bio and Max Havelaar, there’s a wide choice of organic and fair trade products on the market these days. This diversity is good, but it does mean we’re spoilt for choice. How do we actually decide? Do we perceive and evaluate the different labels correctly?

Subjectivity and objectivity compared

To compare subjective perceptions of food labels with the objective reality in sustainability terms, our partner Management Tools conducted a nationwide survey of the Swiss population. The objective evaluation was based on an assessment of food labels done in 2015 by the Stiftung Praktischer Umweltschutz (PUSCH) foundation, which rated the sustainability of 31 different labels on a scale of 0 to 200.

polarstern nachhaltikeit lebensmittel labels vergleich subjektivitaet und objektivitaet

Appearance versus reality | Subjective perceptions and objective sustainability of food labels. Image: Management Tools

Coop and Migros ahead by a nose

The Management Tools survey shows that perceptions of the labels offered by the country’s largest retailers, Migros and Coop, are particularly positive. Migros Bio comes off a touch better than Naturaplan, but both brands are perceived as satisfactory by up to 75 per cent of those polled. The objective evaluation done by PUSCH reveals that subjective perceptions don’t quite match the reality: Naturaplan does better than Migros Bio, scoring 168 points versus Migros Bio’s 141 points. However, the comparison shows that the actual sustainability of the two labels basically tallies with consumer perceptions. Both labels lead the field in both subjective and objective terms.

BioSuisse and TerraSuisse: gaps between perceptions and reality

Perceptions and the objective reality of the Max Havelaar label, seen as reliable by more than two thirds of the population, also match. But there is a major discrepancy when it comes to BioSuisse: even though the label comes second in the objective ratings with 161 points, it lags behind Max Havelaar in subjective terms. There’s also a misalignment between subjective perceptions and objective reality for TerraSuisse.

Communication makes all the difference

The fact that the Coop and Migros labels enjoy so much credibility may have to do with the two retailers’ active communications on sustainability. The example of TerraSuisse also shows the difference communication can make: even though the label is behind the rest in the objective ratings, consumers perceive it as the third-best brand. But there’s a danger here: if there’s too great a gap between subjective perceptions and actual performance it can later lead to a painful loss of face.

If you want to find your way around the jungle of food labels you’ll find ratings of the most widely sought labels, particularly organic ones, on

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