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Consumers aware, but do they care?

Toby Middleton, MSC UK Country Manager

So which came first; the fish or the egg? Are consumers driving sustainable seafood or are businesses choice editing? It’s the perennial question we face when we publish the results of our global consumer survey.  On the one hand, consumer awareness and understanding of the MSC ecolabel are up. On the other, so is the number of products adorned with that little blue fish tick.

Looking at the detail

Delve a little deeper into the figures and there are some interesting, and telling trends. Sure the 31% of consumers who recognise the ecolabel grabs the attention and steals the headlines, however, beneath this are 8% of shoppers who can accurately describe the ecolabel as a mark of certified or sustainable seafood. That 8% figure is actually quite an elegant beastie, as it correlates almost exactly to the proportion of wild capture seafood products on sale today that bear the logo. Well, there you are. Case closed you might say. 8% of products bear the logo, 8% of the public know what it means. But this correlation leaves an important question: which side of this equation is in the driving seat?

This is why we go beyond those top-line figures to get a more meaningful understanding of consumer behaviour. We know how easy it is for shoppers to state a preference for sustainable seafood, but how often is that translated into action? Here the picture becomes somewhat more nuanced; the arguments subtler. This is where we need to challenge our own assumptions and test our predispositions.

Analysing consumer behaviour

We start by asking the overarching questions, such as ‘Do you think fish stocks are falling?’ and ‘Are stocks at critically low levels?’ But then we go back and ask the same in reverse: ‘Is it all just scaremongering?’ and ‘Have you even heard any concerns about fish stocks?’ Our intent here is to understand how much seafood and sustainability are in the public domain. Is it an issue that consumers are thinking about? Comparing year-on-year responses, our research clearly shows the answer is a resounding ‘Yes. 60% of shoppers rate seafood sustainability as a credible, serious issue. Unsurprising, given several high-profile TV and media campaigns over the past year.

Turning thought into action

But what does that mean at the tills? Moreover, how do they make that choice when reaching for the supermarket shelf and ensure it’s informed? Here, again, we try to find out whether consumers think their individual choices will make a difference. In terms of the drivers that influence purchasing decisions, even we were surprised (albeit pleasantly) with the level of trust shoppers place in ecolabels. Over 55% of consumers rank ecolabels right up there with friends and family as the preferred on-pack, independent and credible mark of sustainability.

As for hard evidence of the impact all this good intent is having, sales of MSC labelled products over the last two financial years have nigh-on doubled. That’s £275 million up from £141 million. In anyone’s books, that is a lot of certified seafood.

Certainly, shoppers are still purchasing their staple favourites as before. But you have to think, if you were designing a corporate sustainable seafood sourcing strategy, thinking about packaging or the position of your brand, the business case is increasingly compelling.

The fish and the egg

Clearly the retailers, brands and restaurateurs are proactively choosing to apply the logo to their products and menus but our research shows the driver for this behaviour is the continued appetite consumers are showing for their seafood to be sustainable and credibly proven as such. The use of the MSC ecolabel against this backdrop is based on a response to shopper and diner demand.

This doesn’t mean champagne all-round at MSC headquarters.? Not a bit of it. MSC is just the standard setter. The people really making the change and transforming the market are the fisheries, suppliers, processors, retailers, brands and foodservice businesses in all their shapes and sizes that are looking to certification as a voluntary market based means to deliver sustainable seafood to their customers. The good news is that those customers really do still care. TM