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Coffee greenwashing works: study

Coffee labelled as “eco-friendly” can attract a premium, with consumers led to believe it tastes better, according to new…

Consumers pay a premium for “eco-friendly” coffee largely thanks to labelling. Angelica Lasala/Flickr

Coffee labelled as “eco-friendly” can attract a premium, with consumers led to believe it tastes better, according to new research from Sweden.

The researchers, from the University of Gavle and the University of Chicago, asked study participants to taste and rate two types of coffee, after telling them that one was “eco-friendly”. In reality, both coffees were the same.

The study, published today in PLOS One, found participants preferred the taste of, and were willing to pay more for the “eco-friendly” coffee.

In a second experiment, participants were asked to taste coffee from two different cups, but this time they were not told which of the two cups contained eco-friendly coffee until after they made the preference decision.

Those consumers who identified as “high sustainability” felt the strongest about the label, even when they were told, after their decision, that they preferred the non-labeled alternative.

Low sustainability consumers appeared to be willing to pay more for the eco-friendly alternative as long as they preferred the taste of the product.

The study highlights the importance of perceptions on consumer behaviour, said Joanna Henryks, assistant professor of advertising and marketing communication at University of Canberra.

“Labels and honest labelling are critical because consumers use it to guide them in their purchase behaviour.”

Dr Henryks said consumers looking for eco-friendly or organic products would more than likely trust the label, and unless they were extremely motivated would be unable to check the claims of all of the labels on offer.

“Unfortunately within Australia and worldwide there are literally hundreds of labels claiming various issues,” she said.

The study authors argue further research could look at how to use the study findings to promote sustainable consumer behaviour.

But Robin Canniford, researcher in Melbourne University’s department of marketing, said these types of experiments don’t tell us enough about consumers' eco-friendly intentions because people perform differently in lab settings to how they do in their daily lives.

“When you figure in patterns of consumption outside the coffee arena the findings of these sorts of studies just can’t be generalised, because in daily life there are competing demands and people often don’t do what they say they’re going to do.”

Dr Canniford is currently trying to map the various, sometimes contradictory reasons that motivate eco-friendly consumption.

He said in some cases, ethical or eco-friendly intentions were a drop in a more problematic ocean of household consumption.

“An attitude towards one kind of product such as coffee might lead consumers to say it tastes better but when it comes down to it that doesn’t make them an eco-friendly consumer,” he said.

“For example, some people are consuming eco-friendly products to almost greenwash their household or themselves, but the amount of carbon emissions or sweat shop labour they save by consuming say, eco-friendly coffee, is smashed by the mobile phones they continue to update every year, or the clothes they buy and wear out in a few months.

“So whilst this study is interesting, we have a very long way to go to understand these problems.”

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5 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Harper



    Labeling something eco-friendly is likely to put me off. My instinctive assumption is lower quality at higher cost, with very little true environmental concern involved.

  2. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Charity begins at home.

    If we buy stuff we are doomed to criticism b/c it's from a sweat shop/slave labourforce/child worker.

    If we don't buy the stuff these same people don't get anything at all.

    Labor markets in Western countries dry up b/c labor costs too much, then labor gets shifted to 2nd & 3rd world countries. Then complaints - where does the labor market get sourced next.

    Refugee camps - not a bad idea. Captive workforce too.

  3. Stiofán Mac Suibhne

    Contrarian / Epistemologist

    In the past I was happy to pay a premium for Fair Trade coffee as I liked the idea that the farmers were not bonded slaves. But then I became a coffee neurotic only buying one or two brands and my social conscience withered.

    I am cynical about Eco-wotsits & organic claims. As for free range eggs, in Australia it seems to mean exactly what you want it to mean. I think many affluent people would be prepared to pay a little more for environmental / social justice in the supply chain but many perceive business to be big fat liars.

  4. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    The most eco-friendly coffee I've ever tried was made from beans I'd grown (organically) at home myself, then cleaned, fermented, roasted and brewed. It was extremely labour-intensive. Taste? Putrid.
    On a related note, friends visiting us refused to drink our generic-brand soda water, claiming that they only ever drank the far superior "Evian" water. They accepted my challenge to undertake a blind taste-testing, in which they consistently preferred the cheaper brand. To this day, they claim my test was rigged.