Catering firms are faced with myriad eco-labels. But are they an essential part of communicating their ethics?
Ask a student what factors determine the food they buy and price will invariably come top – and who can blame them, with the average graduate’s debt running at more than £44,000? But woe betide the university caterer that replaces the Fairtrade coffee with a cheaper alternative, or offers cod on a Friday that isn’t tagged with the tick synonymous with sustainably sourced seafood.
“We cater for 40,000 students and 11,000 staff and when we surveyed them about their food choices, ethics came last,” says Alison Aucott from the University of Manchester. “We are passionate about delivering sustainability and put a lot of effort into it,” she says, but it’s disappointing that customers don’t recognise that.
Aucott captured the feeling at December’s Footprint Forum – a lively debate that highlighted how confused and constrained many feel about the ethical label market. John Isherwood, the head of sustainability at Pret a Manger, says he was “horrified” by the responses of customers when asked what more the high-street chain could do on the sustainability front. “They basically asked me to lower the prices,” he explains.
Ethics do not always come with a premium price-tag, of course – but to gain third-party accreditation requires strict auditing and someone has to pay for it. If supply chains are audited a number of times for different labelling schemes, behind-the-scenes costs can spiral. Further payment to display the label is a common gripe.
So should companies do without the labels altogether? Few brands have managed to conjure an ethical aura around their products and services without using at least one of the big eco-logos – Fairtrade, organic, MSC and Freedom Foods, for example. One of the few is Innocent, but even it has found ethics a harder sell the bigger it’s become. The “halo” on the logo certainly still helps, says Innocent’s technical operations director, Simon Allison.
For those who are innocent, but not Innocent, an ecolabel can offer cynical customers peace of mind. “People are looking to the marks to give them some confidence in the product,” says Reynolds technical director, Ian Booth.
A study in June 2014 by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that 63% of UK consumers believe that companies need to do more than just say they are ethical – they need to prove it. Independent third-party accreditation does just that. Given that 33% of consumers also feel that information on ethical goods isn’t easily available and 30% say ethical options are not well advertised, a logo can offer a marketing bump.
But here’s the rub: in the same survey 39% say that higher prices make them less likely to buy ethical products. In fact, 28% say their buying decisions have never been influenced by eco-standards.
What people say and what they do are often different. However, it’s clear that many foodservice firms are struggling to talk about the good they do without the help of Fairtrade, MSC and the like. With no sign of a catch-all eco-label that streamlines the auditing processes, perhaps it’s time for the sector to rethink its marketing plans in a bid to regain the trust of its customers without the help of a logo?