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Episode 8: One label fits all?

What sustainability labels can and can't do


More and more consumers in Germany and the EU consider sustainability when shopping. Various labels, more or less abundant on products, promise orientation. In many cases, they only provide information on specific aspects, such as ecological sustainability or working conditions in the countries of origin. The idea is that a national label should cover all aspects of a sustainably manufactured product. Can this work? (in German)

„We thought that the labels in the food industry are an instrument to make people buy differently and that they contribute to sustainability through their buying behavior and their willingness to pay more. We overestimated that in the beginning.“ Achim Spiller, Professor Georg-August-University Göttingen

Critics complain that the attempt to consider all criteria such as animal welfare, greenhouse gas emission, nitrogen balance, crop protection, biodiversity and social standards in one score leads to mediocracy. This is  because positive and negative points would cancel out each other. Another criticism is that the application of a single standard for all products leads to excessive bureaucracy and would not be feasible, for example, in the case of processed products due to the large number of suppliers. Whether such a label for can still create sufficient incentives consumers is doubted. Proponents emphasize that only the government can guarantee independent and objective assessments and that a multitude of other labels would become needless.

In our podcast episode, Hiltrud Nieberg and Christopher Zimmermann from the Thünen Institute and Achim Spiller from the University of Göttingen explain whether a meta-label for food can work. They classify the various product labels, talk about the advantages and disadvantages of individual labels, the responsibility of the state for targeted consumer orientation and of consumers when shopping, and ways to contain the label jungle.



Our guests

As head of the Thünen Institute of Farm Economics and member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) on Agricultural Policy, Food and Consumer Health Protection, agricultural economist Dr. Hiltrud Nieberg has been involved in the sustainability of agricultural operations for many years. She played a key role in the development of the QM sustainability module for milk.

Fisheries biologist Dr. Christopher Zimmermann, head of the Thünen Institute of Baltic Sea Fisheries, has played a key role in the development of the world's leading standard for sustainable fisheries as chair of the Technical Advisory Board (TAB) and member of the Board of Trustees of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Prof. Achim Spiller is Professor of Marketing for Food and Agricultural Products at the Georg-August University of Göttingen. As an expert on consumer behaviour, supply chains and sustainability management, he advocates a government sustainability label. The agricultural economist and marketing specialist is chairman of the BMEL's Scientific Advisory Board for Agricultural Policy, Nutrition and Consumer Health Protection.

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