Consumer Knowledge and Understanding of Environmental Seals in the Netherlands

ABSTRACT - Environmental seals, certifications and related symbols have an established place in the provision of product related environmental information to consumers. Many products in Dutch supermarkets are labelled with some seal, certification or symbol that have an environmental connotation. The effectiveness of environmental seals and certifications depends to a large degree on the consumer capacity to recognize and correctly interpret them. In this study eleven environmental seals and symbols that are widely used in The Netherlands are evaluated in terms of consumer recognition and understanding. Recognition, and especially understanding, and perceived environmental implication are rather low, but they can be enhanced by information of a neutral source, like the government or the certifying institute.



Citation:

Ynte K. van Dam and Mirjam Reuvekamp (1995) ,"Consumer Knowledge and Understanding of Environmental Seals in the Netherlands", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 217-223.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 217-223

CONSUMER KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING OF ENVIRONMENTAL SEALS IN THE NETHERLANDS

Ynte K. van Dam, Wageningen Agricultural University

Mirjam Reuvekamp, Wageningen Agricultural University

ABSTRACT -

Environmental seals, certifications and related symbols have an established place in the provision of product related environmental information to consumers. Many products in Dutch supermarkets are labelled with some seal, certification or symbol that have an environmental connotation. The effectiveness of environmental seals and certifications depends to a large degree on the consumer capacity to recognize and correctly interpret them. In this study eleven environmental seals and symbols that are widely used in The Netherlands are evaluated in terms of consumer recognition and understanding. Recognition, and especially understanding, and perceived environmental implication are rather low, but they can be enhanced by information of a neutral source, like the government or the certifying institute.

INTRODUCTION

Over the past years the natural environment has re-emerged at the focus of attention within marketing and consumer behaviour studies. Building on the principles of consumer primacy and the operations of the free market a major role is assigned to the so called 'green consumer'. This green consumer is aware of the interrelations between environmental pollution and consumption, and willing to translate his concerns into responsible consumer demand. The resulting green market pull will lead to a greening of business (Peattie, 1992). This line of argument in essence rests on two conditions. One condition is that consumers will demand green products once they know them. A more basic condition is that consumers will recognize green products that appear on the market.

It is of course a well-known fact that consumer preference can be influenced by relevant product information (Thomas & Dr÷ll, 1989). Over the past decade many industries have rushed to bring to consumers' attention the environmental benefits of their products and packaging (Cude, 1993). As a result, consumers have been exposed to a variety of unfamiliar terms and claims. At best these claims are ambiguous and subject to interpretation, at worst they are potentially deceptive or misleading. Likewise the conclusions of "the ever-increasing number of studies on the environmental effects of packaging are often contradictory. Their practical use is further limited by remarks stressing the need for additional and considerably more detailed study of the environmental effects of packaging before definite conclusions can be expected. Thus in a few years a very confusing situation has been created" (Kooijman, 1993). And so the consumer is confronted with the environmental impact of products, which is presented as a vitally important issue, which is beyond his judgemental capacities, and on which experts clearly disagree.

In order to increase consumer understanding of the relationship between consumption behaviour and environmental problems, clear and specific information about the environmental impact of packaged products should be provided. The value of point-of-sale environmental product information in this respect is undisputed. For fast-moving-consumer-goods the packaging is an important source of information for purchase decisions (Beier, 1983; Widmer, 1986). Therefore environmental product information could very well be provided on the product packaging. Considerations of information overload would favour simple and easily accessible information (e.g. Jacoby, 1977, 1984; Scammon, 1977; Malhotra et al. 1982). Furthermore the habitual response patterns that are generally employed with common repeat purchases also favour simple seals over informational labels. Environmental certification marks on product packagings could offer a guideline to those consumers who wish to show consideration for the environment through their purchases (van Dam, 1992). In this study we investigate the actual role of environmental seals and certifications as carriers of environmental information to consumers.

EXISTING RESEARCH

The problem-solving or decision-making approach to consumer behaviour is dominant among researchers and policy makers alike. At the core of this approach is the consumer's recognition of a lack of relevant information and the subsequent gathering and processing of this information from available sources (Engel et al., 1990). Seals or certifications of approval are identified as an important source of product-related information (Parkinson, 1975).

The role of seals and certifications of approval in information processing has already been studied. Laric & Sarel (1981), in their analysis of the perception and usage of the U.S. Good Housekeeping Seal, conclude that "most of the value perceived is based on misperception of the correct objective information as provided by the GHS". An earlier study by Parkinson (1975) also concluded that consumers (a) prefer products bearing a familiar seal, (b) attribute high credibility to seals, and (c) suffer from a general misunderstanding of the meaning and implications of any seal. Once a seal or certification is well known it will exert a generic effect on product perception and preference formation, irrespective of the actual meaning of the seal.

Environmental seals and certifications even suffer a double confusion. Not only are they subject to the 'generic' confusion on the limited meaning of seals and certifications, but consumers also show a remarkable amount of uncertainty and misunderstanding concerning environmental claims and terminology (Scammon & Mayer, 1993; Cude, 1993). On the other hand it can be shown experimentally that environmental seals and eco-labels may influence consumer's sensitivity to price and performance of a product (Ottum et al., 1994). It appears that once the attention is focused on environmental seals and eco-labels, they can and will influence consumer choice, whereas in practice the meanings of environmental seals and eco-labels are widely misunderstood. Furthermore it remains unclear whether environmental seals and eco-labels actually are noticed by consumers in their daily shopping routines.

The European Community, in its council regulation on a community award scheme for an eco-label, states as one of its objectives that the award scheme should "provide consumers with better information on the environmental performance of products" (EC, 1991). We assume that the same objective holds for environmental seals and certifications. In order to determine whether the environmental seals and certification fulfil this objective, research is needed in consumer perception and usage of these seals (cf. van Dam, 1992; Scammon & Mayer, 1993).

KNOWLEDGE OF ENVIRONMENTAL SEALS

This study was designed to gain insight into degree of recognition and understanding of eleven widely used environmental seals by Dutch consumers. If these seals are to influence consumer behaviour, they should be recognized by consumers. In that case most seals and symbols should enjoy moderate to high familiarity. Furthermore, if these seals are to provide consumers with better information on the environmental performance of products, there should be adequate consumer understanding -and neither an overestimation nor an underestimation- of their environmental meaning. Based on the previously cited literature however, it could be expected that the actual meaning of the seals would be both widely misunderstood and overestimated.

TABLE 1

MEANINGS OF SEALS AND SYMBOLS USED IN THIS STUDY

This could give rise to some contradictory expectations concerning the environmental implications of the seals. For general quality seals with an environmental implication it could be hypothesized that the general meaning would be overestimated, thereby suppressing the environmental implication. On the other hand it could be hypothesized that for the specific environmental seals the environmental implications, being the only meaning, would be overestimated.

Recognition and understanding of the seals have been related to descriptive characteristics of the seals and to demographic characteristics of the respondents.

METHOD

Although there are a large number of environmental seals and certifications, we limited our study to seals that consumers could reasonably be familiar with. Therefore this research was limited to the eleven seals mentioned below. All the seals refer, more or less, to environmental aspects. All of the eleven labels used in this study appear on products sold in supermarkets through the Netherlands. This should imply a more frequent exposure than seals which only appear on consumer durables or technical household equipment.

The meaning and objectives of the seals that are used differ widely, from product information to information about disposal requirements, and from specific environmental to general quality seal. Some seals have an ambiguous meaning, or no meaning at all for the Dutch market (Consumentenbond, 1995). The labels used in this study are depicted in appendix 1. The meaning of the seals and symbols is summarized in table 1.

Data were collected from ninety-six consumers on various locations throughout the Netherlands. The data were collected by a questionnaire which was taken in face-to-face interviews. Respondents were sampled randomly on several shopping-malls through the country, on different days of the week. Because a pre-test had shown that consumers were unable to identify the seals without a frame of reference, the seals and symbols were identified in the questionnaire as 'information appearing on products that are widely available in supermarkets'.

The first part of the questionnaire consisted of questions about gender, region, age, composition of the household, education level, and involvement in the purchasing of shopping goods (operationalized as time spent on daily purchases and knowledge of prices). The second part of the questionnaire consisted of pictures of the eleven seals. First the respondents were asked to indicate whether they recognized the symbol. If they recognized the symbol, they were asked to reproduce the meaning of the symbol in their own words. Afterwards additional descriptives of the seals were collected, like year of introduction and type of promotion.

TABLE 2

PERCENTAGE OF RECOGNITION AND UNDERSTANDING OF THE ELEVEN SYMBOLS

RESULTS

General meaning

First recognition and perceived meanings of the environmental seals and symbols were coded into five categories being:

1 recognition and understanding of the meaning of the symbol;

2 recognition and identification of products bearing the symbol;

3 recognition and the wrong meaning of the symbol;

4 mere recognition, no meaning reproduced;

5 never seen the symbol before.

This coding provided an overview of the recognition of the different symbols. Table 2 summarizes the percentages of recognition and understanding. The first column in table 2 states the percentage of recognition, which is defined as the fraction of the sample that claimed to have seen the label before (coded 1 to 4). The second column contains the percentage of understanding, expressed as the fraction consumers in the sample that displayed adequate understanding of the symbol (coded 1). The third column in table 2 contains adequate understanding as a percentage of recognition.

The percentage of recognition and the percentage of understanding as fraction of recognition are correlated (rho=.7094, p=.014). In other words once the seal is recognized, the proportion of respondents that understand the meaning of the seal is higher for seals that are recognized by more respondents.

There appear to be large differences in the recognition of the different seals or symbols, and there are also marked differences between quite similar symbols. For instance the chasing arrows of the Recycle Symbol (1) rank highest, but the chasing arrows of the Society of Plastics Industry Symbol (11) rank lowest. This implies that there is very little transfer between symbols with similar appearance, and that it is not necessarily an advantage to develop a new symbol as adaptation of existing ones.

No significant relation could be found between on the one hand the number of symbols that was either recognized or understood and on the other hand any of the variables gender, age, level of education, composition of the household, geographic region or involvement in shopping.

There appears to be a wide difference between recognition and understanding of the environmental symbols. These differences in recognition and understanding have strong reminiscences to the cognitive stages of the classic hierarchical models of advertising effect (Colley, 1961; Lavidge & Steiner, 1961). By inspecting the level of recognition and the level of understanding one can get a clue whether promotion of the seal should be focused on raising familiarity or on enhancing comprehension (figure 1).

From figure 1 and table 2 it appears that the seals 2, 5, 6, and 8 (Union of Housewives, CFC, Grnne Punkt, and ISC-seal) suffer from a proportional lack of understanding concerning their meaning. This should not constitute a problem for the CFC-seal and the grnne Punkt, as the former is currently being withdrawn from the market, whereas the latter is meant for the German, in stead of the Dutch market. Of the other two, the Union of Housewives seal is a general quality seal, comparable to the GHS (Parkinson, 1975), which apparently is effective irrespective of understanding. The ISC-seal however has a rather specific meaning, and it is to be expected that this particular seal lacks in effectiveness due to incomplete understanding. The seals numbered 7 and higher could all benefit from an increase in familiarity, and some in second instance also from a better understanding.

In order to relate recognition and understanding of the seals to characteristics of the seals two descriptive variables were included. The first is the period of time that the seal is on the Dutch market, coded into three categories. The categories are (1) three years or less, (2) 4 to 10 years, and (3) longer than 10 years. The second variable is the type of communication supporting the seal. The communication was coded (1) government information by radio and television, (2) free publicity and press coverage, (3) product related promotion, (4) in store promotion, (5) local government information, and (6) other communication by the certifying institute, such as flyers.

FIGURE 1

RECOGNITION AND UNDERSTANDING OF ELEVEN SEALS

The influence of time on the market and type of communication on recognition and understanding (as coded in five categories) is investigated by means of oneway-anova.

Recognition and understanding of seals which are on the market over 10 years have a better recognition and understanding (2.6) than more recently introduced seals (3.5 and 4.0). Government information, free publicity and press coverage, and local government information are related to better recognition and understanding as well. Due to systematic covariances of the two variables no interaction effects could be estimated.

Environmental connotation

De perceived meanings of the logos for each respondent were coded as signifying an environmental implication (1) or not (0). The perceived environmental implications were recoded into three categories. Underestimation of the actual environmental implication was coded (1), overestimation was coded (3), and accurate estimation was coded (2). This coding was performed by two independent judges with an inter-rater agreement of 93%.

No significant relation could be found between over- or underestimation and the demographic variables gender, region, household-composition, age, education, involvement in shopping.

Next the environmental implications and the over- and underestimation of environmental significance were related to descriptives of the seals.

The first column of table 3 is the percentage of respondents in the sample that reproduced any perceived meaning of the seals. This provides the baseline from which the other values are derived. It will be recalled that these correspond to the initial codes 1, 2, and 3. The second column mentions the percentage of respondents that reproduced a perceived meaning with an environmental implication. The third and fourth column give the percentage of underestimation and overestimation. The percentages in the second, third, and fourth column were calculated as a fraction of the first column.

The percentage of perceived environmental implication and the degree of under- or overestimation of this implication for each seal was related to the time since introduction of the seals and the type of communication supporting the seals. The seals that are recently introduced (less than 3 years) are perceived to have an environmental meaning more often (m=.93) than seals that are introduced up to 10 years (m=.72) or more than 10 years (m=.62) ago (F=13.7; p=.000). This can be explained by pointing to the fact that seals which were introduced recently tend to be especially focused on the environment, whereas the earlier seals carry their environmental implications as part of a more general meaning.

Surprisingly the environmental implication of all seals is systematically underestimated, reflected by a mean score under 2. This result appears to be in conflict with existing studies on the interpretation of seals and certifications. The environmental meanings of the seals which were introduced over 10 years ago are underestimated comparatively more (m=1.68) than more recently introduced seals (F=6.56; p=.002). The underestimation of seals that were introduced under 3 years ago (m=1.88) and seal that were introduced up to 10 years ago (m=1.86) did not differ significantly.

The influence of type of communication on environmental connotation and underestimation of environmental implication is summarized in .

Governmental information by national and local government are related to less underestimation of the environmental implication, as is the rest category of 'other communications'. Conversely free publicity and press coverage leads to more severe underestimation of the environmental implications of the seal. Product related communications and in store information both were product specific and therefore were excluded from these analyses. It should however be noted that either seal ranked well below average on environmental connotation and estimation of environmental significance. This could indicate a negative influence of supportive communication which is related to commercial application of the seals.

TABLE 3

PERCENTAGE OF ENVIRONMENTAL IMPLICATION, UNDER- AND OVERESTIMATION OF ENVIRONMENTAL MEANING OF THE ELEVEN SYMBOLS

TABLE 4

INFLUENCE OF TYPE OF COMMUNICATION ON PERCEPTION AND DEGREE OF UNDERESTIMATION OF ENVIRONMENTAL IMPLICATION

CONCLUSION AND DISCUSSION

The underlying goal of environmental labelling programs is to minimize negative impacts on the natural environment by encouraging consumers to buy environmentally superior products and encouraging firms to offer them. Most of the environmental seals and symbols appearing on packaged products however are recognized by less than half of the sample. Of the four seals and symbols that were widely recognized only two were correctly understood by a majority of the sample. This leads to the conclusion that the environmental seals, certifications and symbols that are currently used can not play a significant role in the information provision to consumers. It is therefore unlikely that the seals and symbols fulfil their stated underlying goal of encouraging consumers to buy environmentally superior products. For some of the symbols this is mainly due to lack of familiarity, whereas others suffer from a marked lack of understanding. There is however an indication that recognition and understanding of seals tends to grow in time, and that it can be enhanced by independent communication by governments or the certifying institutions themselves.

APPENDIX 1

REFERENCES

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Colley, R.H., 1961, Defining Advertising Goals for Measuring Advertising Results. Association of National Advertisers Inc. New York

Consumentenbond, 1995, Symbolen om te onthouden: wat zeggen symbolen op produkten over het milieu? [Symbols to remember: what do symbols on products say about the environment?]. Information leaflet, Dutch Consumer Society

Cude, B.J., 1993, Consumer perceptions of environmental marketing claims: an exploratory study. Journal of Consumer Studies and Home Ecnonomics, 17: 207-225

van Dam, Y.K., 1992, Issues in environmental product information systems: ecological seal or environmental label. In: W..J.M.Heijman & J.J.Krabbe (eds.) Issues of environmental economic policy. WES 24, Wageningen: 87-110

EC, 1991, Proposal for a Council Regulation (EEC) on a Community award scheme for an Eco-label. 91/C 75/05. Official Journal of the European Communities No. C75, 23.3.1991 pp. 23-28

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Laric, M.V. & D.Sarel, 1981, Consumer (mis)perceptions and usage of third party certification marks, 1972 and 1980: did public policy have an impact? Journal of Marketing, 45 (summer): 135-142

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Authors

Ynte K. van Dam, Wageningen Agricultural University
Mirjam Reuvekamp, Wageningen Agricultural University



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995



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