The citizen goes shopping: a framework for the assessment and optimization of production from the perspective of society

Tassos Michalopoulos

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU

Abstract

Nowadays, product labels are often used to enable consumers choose products that are friendly to the environment and to animals, natural, healthful and socially responsible. However, certain features of commonly used labels limit their usefulness. This thesis identifies a number of these limitations and presents an innovative labeling approach designed to address them.

More specifically, the following features limit the usefulness of the commonly used “endorsement” labels: they (1) offer a single certification grade, the requirements for which (2) are ‘static’ in the sense that certification standards do not depend on the evolution of the market, (3) are voluntary, and (4) are defined by stakeholders. Consequently, common labels fail to remove information asymmetry regarding the ethical performance of non-certified products; limit the opportunities for moderately –yet positively– concerned consumers to reveal ethical preferences; fail to motivate product improvement beyond certification standard; allow the emergence of a confusing variety of overlapping labels; and allow production stakeholders to resist socially desirable certification requirements when these are unfavorable to their business. In shoft, ethical labels currently fail to unleash on ethical aspects of production the inherently ‘free-market’ dynamics according to which products and firms must continuously innovate and improve, or else become obsolete and vanish.

As an alternative, this thesis proposes and works out an innovative “comparative” labeling approach that is designed to address these limitations. The proposed type of label is (1) multi-grade or continuous, (2) dynamic, (3) mandatory, and (4) society-defined. An example of this type of label is given at  Figure 1.

Figure 1: Two variations of an example intuitive color-coded label format. The variations depict different sets of product attributes, and also different aggregation levels of the Environmental Impact attribute.

This type of labeling could motivate the creation of a ‘vitruous cyrcle’ or ‘race to the top’, in which the ethical performance of products moves to the direction that society at large regards as ‘positive’. This process is outlined at Figure 2.

Figure 2: Expected effects on the environmental performance of marketed product substitutes from the introduction of  the proposed labeling system, in three phases. In Phase 1, the label is introduced on product substitutes available in the market (supply). In Phase 2, the supply evolves. To the standard (negative) incentives for cost minimization, are now added (positive) incentives to avoid negative reputation and to improve further the environmental frontiers of production through innovation. In Phase 3, the label is adjusted (updated) to the evolved supply. Products that failed to improve since last update might become downgraded (blue arrows).

It is argued that the proposed labeling approach has the potential to boost ethical consumerism as a force for the ethical optimization of the market. This can be directly relevant to issues about which society is concerned, and democratically elected goverments have limited ability to regulate. Among possible uses of the method developed to assess the relative performance of substitute products, are the comparative ranking of presently available labels (so as to inform consumers on the relative impact of different certified products), the justification of the allocation of incentives and discincentives in state policy, and also the ethical optimization and promotion of own production by socially responsible suppliers.  Overall, the described approach aspires to transform markets into instruments that work to the direction willed by society, so as to bring market-driven and continuous improvement for production aspects of societal concern, such as environmental and socioeconomic aspects of the real economy.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
Supervisors/Advisors
  • Oude Lansink, Alfons, Promotor
  • Korthals, Michiel, Promotor
  • Hogeveen, Henk, Co-promotor
Award date5 Dec 2016
Place of PublicationWageningen
Publisher
Print ISBNs9789462579828
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Keywords

  • food production
  • food ethics
  • labelling
  • consumer behaviour
  • consumer preferences
  • optimization
  • consumer information
  • philosophy
  • political attitudes
  • animal production
  • animal ethics
  • cattle
  • dairy cattle

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  • Projects

    Trade-offs between cost-benefit analysis and societal values

    Michalopoulos, T., Hogeveen, H., Korthals, M. & Oude Lansink, A.

    1/03/035/12/16

    Project: PhD

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