Vox Pop: Can consumers tell the difference between sustainable cocoa labels?

By Douglas Yu contact

- Last updated on GMT

Many consumers struggle to tell the difference between cocoa certification program labels like Fairtrade and company own labels, such as Nestlé’s Cocoa Plan, but all agree social responsibility should be a priority for chocolate makers.

ConfectioneryNews surveyed consumers at a indoor specialty food market in downtown Chicago after Theo Chocolate’s co-founder, Debra Music warned that greenwashing​ was a challenge in the premium chocolate sector.

They were shown sustainable cocoa labels such as those from Fairtrade, Fairtrade USA, Nestlé's Cocoa Plan and Mondelez's Cocoa Life.

Certify agents’ concern: which labels are credible?

Most shoppers said sustainability logos mean positive living and working condition for cocoa farmers, but hardly any of them knew how to tell which labels were credible.

Understanding what labels stand for can often be “a real challenge”​ for consumers in many countries, UTZ’s executive director, Han de Groot, told ConfectioneryNews.

UTZ is one of the largest cocoa sustainability certifying organizations in the world.

Chuao Label
"Ethically Sourced Cacao" label appears on the back of Chuao Chocolatier's packaging

“This situation often creates confusion and can also lower the public trust in labels,”​ he said.

“Take for instance The Netherlands. There are so many labels that the Ministry of Economic Affairs recently commissioned a new study of 90 labels and food brands, ranking them on their sustainability requirements, transparency and control processes.

The study named the 11 top food labels that meet a strict set of criteria and can be seen as credible and trustworthy.”

However, the study shows that the number of credible labels is not as large as often perceived, Groot added.

ISEAL membership

Most of the top 11 are ISEAL Alliance members, he said. ISEAL is an organization for sustainability standards which sets out global references, called the ISEAL Codes of Good Practice, for what credibility in standards and certification looks like.

In addition to UTZ, other ISEAL full members also include Fairtrade International and Rainforest Alliance, according to ISEAL’s website.

Perhaps not coincidentally, those are the labels consumers told ConfectioneryNews they recognize the most.

“I believe the market, industry and consumer organizations should take these findings seriously, and use labels that are really trustworthy when making sustainability claims,”​ Groot said. “…We encourage the governments of all the countries with many food labels to follow the Dutch example.”

Fair Trade label recognition

Research earlier this year by Fair Trade USA and Natural Marketing Institute​ suggested over half of consumers recognize the Fair Trade Certified label, compared to 38% in 2012. The percentage is even higher among Millennials.

But the consumers we surveyed said a sustainable cocoa label was only one of several factors impacting their purchase decisions, which including flavor and health benefits.

Many said they would buy the chocolate if a sustainability label appears on the front of the packaging rather than the back, because it is more noticeable.

“I would definitely pay [a premium price] for chocolate that carry sustainability labels, because they are better quality,”​ one consumers said.

How to prevent greenwashing?

The responses suggest consumers are confused whether sustainability labels are about cocoa farmers or merely a marketing plan for their own companies.

Groot suggested that the proliferation of dubious labels and claims can be prevented by agreeing on minimum requirements that sustainability labels should meet.

“One of the simplest ways to divide the credible sustainability standards from the rest is ISEAL membership,”​ he said. “UTZ is a member of ISEAL and supports the ISEAL campaign, ‘Challenge the Label,’ an essential tool for any claims users to detangle credible from non-credible claims.”

Third party certify agent or company’s own sustainability program?

Cadbury’s recent move to use Mondelēz’s own Cocoa Life program​ label after the company teamed up with Fairtrade to expand its sustainability program has drawn some criticism from the chocolate industry, as some said it may put the Fairtrade model at risk.

When it comes to the distinction between company projects and third-party certification, Groot said UTZ and other certification programs have very strict rules about how the label can be used by companies, the extra information that must be provided on pack, and so on.

“Making a clear distinction between company projects and third party certified sustainability programs helps prevent greenwashing accusations, which seriously damage company reputation and credibility, as well as the sector as a whole,”​ he said.

“Almost all the major players in the chocolate industry have made commitments towards sustainability and sourcing sustainable cocoa, which is of course a very welcomed trend considering that overall cocoa production is far from being sustainable,”​ Groot said.

“On the Cadbury’s Fairtrade announcement, it’s not really possible for UTZ to comment until we see the details and how it develops,” ​he added.

[Additional reporting by Mary Ellen Shoup]

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