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AMSTERDAM – Just 10 per cent of Dutch consumers surveyed said they believed the Better Cotton hallmark on clothing was ‘trustworthy’ while only 16 per cent perceived that a garment labelled with the Better Cotton tag was “more sustainable” than one without it. The findings are included in a study commissioned by the Dutch authorities as part of a crackdown on misleading sustainability claims on consumer-facing labels.

“Although one knows some quality marks, one usually does not know what they stand for, [or] who issues and controls them,” the researchers concluded. “Only a quarter of consumers have confidence in sustainability labels … as a result, they do not offer any guidance when making sustainable choices.”

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Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) commissioned research into the knowledge and use of sustainability labels among consumers. 

The study team concluded that consumers wish to have reliable information regarding the sustainability aspects of products when choosing between them. “The myriad of sustainability labels and claims reduces their usefulness to consumers,” the researchers concluded. “Moreover, they provide consumers too little information for giving them any assurance. Only labels with clear information will be of use to consumers when seeking to make sustainable choices.”

Cateautje Hijmans van den Bergh, board member at ACM, said: “Consumers seek assurance. They have a hard time determining to what extent a product is actually sustainable. Sustainability labels can help consumers make sustainable choices, but such information will have to be verifiable, easy-to-compare, and easy-to-understand. That is not the case right now. It is up to the legislature to set out clear rules for labels.”

The study found that knowledge of sustainability labels among consumers is notably limited. “Consumers say that, if they are given more information about and therefore have more knowledge of such labels, they will use them more often,” concluded the researchers.

The study also looked into the ways in which information about labels can be presented to consumers in a clear and easy-to-understand manner. It was revealed that consumers appreciate visual labels.

Overall, they found that just one in four consumers have confidence in sustainability labels.

The research concluded: “Clear and reliable information is needed for stimulating consumers proposals have made steps in that area, as they contain stricter requirements on sustainability labels and logos. For example, only labels that are based on independent certification by the government or an independent third party can be used. In advance thereof, ACM sees such legislative proposals as a solid basis for starting with introducing requirements on sustainability labels. ACM calls on the legislature and the corporate world to revamp the current system of labels.”

As in Norway and the UK, the Dutch government is cracking down on greenwashing. ACM has launched investigations into misleading sustainability claims in the clothing, energy, and dairy sectors. In the clothing and energy sectors, follow-up investigations are currently underway into four companies. 

Some key findings from the Dutch study:

For some context and comparison, below are some of the findings from four labels:

When respondents were asked, is the hallmark trustworthy? the scores were:

Better Cotton 10 per cent

Fairtrade 53 per cent

Rainforest Alliance 27 per cent

EU Ecolabel 15 per cent

When asked, whether they knew what the quality mark meant, the scores were:

BCI 15 per cent

Fairtrade 54 per cent

Rainforest Alliance 20 per cent

EU EcoLabel 12 per cent

When they were asked whether a product with the label was more sustainable than a product without it, the results were:

Better Cotton 16 per cent

Fairtrade 37 per cent

Rainforest Alliance 27 per cent

EU Eco Label 19 per cent

When asked whether the presence of the logo on the label meant it was sustainable, the results were:

Better Cotton 14 per cent

EU Ecolabel 17 per cent

Fairtrade 38 per cent

Rainforest Alliance 25 per cent

Full paper: Onderzoek naar de invloed van duurzaamheidskeurmerken op consumenten (acm.nl)

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