As store shelves are inundated with a torrent of certifications and verifications, it is up to the retailer to educate consumers about their presence, meanings and importance.
Walking down a supermarket aisle has begun to resemble a stroll in New York City’s Times Square. Bright graphics and bold logos are vying for consumers’ attention. However, among the sensory overload is a growing group of very valuable and meaningful symbols.
Once upon a time, manufacturers utilized the seals of third-party certifiers to symbolize that their products met certain dietary requirements such as gluten-free, kosher, halal and the like. Now consumers and retailers are faced with products touting their social and environmental values and commitments through The Non-GMO Project, Certified B Corps, Fair Trade USA and more.
To the consumer, manufacturers might appear to be collecting certifications like baseball cards. But if retailers get involved and commit to raising awareness and promoting the presence of these certifications on the shelf, all parties involved can benefit, say industry observers.
In order to promote certified products with consumers, retailers must first alert them to their presence on the shelf. Whether it is Non-GMO Project Verified, Fair Trade Certified or USDA Organic, identification is priority number one.
“Start by actively calling out and merchandising the verified products you already sell,” says Chris Keefe, retail programs manager for the Non-GMO Project. The third-party certifier, based in Bellingham, Wash., can provide retailers with the UPC data needed to identify those products and graphics and collateral to bring attention to them.
Members of the Non-GMO Project’s Supporting Retailer Program receive year-round support focused on merchandising and marketing, strategic outreach and staff training. The Project makes a comprehensive selection of these tools available to all retailers for free during Non-GMO Month each October.
Fair Trade USA also works closely with retailers and its brand partners to create and supply a variety of point-of-sale signage. The Oakland, Calif.-based organization has created a very basic shelf-talker which retailers can use to mark certified products in their stores. Each tag features a picture of a Fair Trade farmer and a brief explanation of how buying certified Fair Trade products benefits the lives of those farmers.
The primary hurdle to shoppers seeking Fair Trade Certified products is what Sandra Stumbaugh, vice president of communications, calls “convenient access.”
“Even though the products are there, more than 60% of consumers have told us they would buy Fair Trade products more often if they were available at the stores where they regularly shop,” says Stumbaugh. “Being available when and where consumers shop and within arm’s reach is crucial.”
Grocers have unique abilities to contribute to the Fair Trade and Non-GMO movements, say observers. This is due to the resources available to them and countless opportunities to engage consumers in these missions while increasing sales of certified and verified products.
Sandy Yusen, spokeswoman for Keurig Green Mountain, a large purchaser of Fair Trade coffee worldwide, says retailers can educate consumers and build awareness, while positioning themselves as a leader. “Let consumers see that you support Fair Trade by offering a deep selection of Fair Trade products, partnering with companies that are committed to Fair Trade and merchandising Fair Trade products together,” she says. “Once consumers are aware and understand the benefits of Fair Trade, they are generally more likely to purchase based on this important product attribute.”
According to company officials, in fiscal 2013, 26% of the coffee Keurig Green Mountain purchased was Fair Trade Certified. This represented 56.8 million pounds of Fair Trade coffee. In 2012, the Waterbury, Vt.-based company announced that every new product produced and launched under its Green Mountain Coffee brand would be Fair Trade Certified.
Keeping it clean
Not so long ago, front-of-pack certifications and seals were positioned there because of dietary necessity. Now, consumers are examining these graphics for the level of transparency they provide to the product inside. Products can carry one or many of these certifications, but some observers wonder if there can be too much of a good thing.
“We’re a principled company and principled brands are held to a higher standard. When a consumer sees your certifications, you don’t want your packaging to look like a racecar,” says Todd Kluger, vice president of sales and marketing for Richvale, Calif.-based Lundberg Family Farms.
This dilemma can be summed up in the simple adage that, “If you stand for everything, you stand for nothing,” Kluger adds. Each brand must decide what presentation works best for its product and its consumer base.
“The non-GMO verification is, in a small way, at odds with the USDA Organic certification,” says Kluger. “Even though the USDA Organic symbol inherently means non-GMO, consumers don’t fully understand that because non-GMO is a newer term for them and one that they’re hearing much more often right now.”
As a result, Lundberg Family Farms has chosen to feature both the USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified seals on the front of its qualifying product packaging.
Janie Hoffman, founder and CEO of Mamma Chia, based in Carlsbad, Calif., decided to stick to her convictions on this labeling debate. “There is some truth that the USDA Certified Organic logo is being compromised in some ways by having the non-GMO seal next to it. But I feel so strongly that we have a right to know about genetically modified foods, so we decided that we also wanted to support the non-GMO labeling movement and certified our products with The Non-GMO Project. We’re taking a stand,” she says.
Many observers say consumers have learned to trust the USDA Organic certification and are becoming more trustful of the Non-GMO Project Verification. “It demonstrates to consumers that even if they don’t recognize every item on the ingredient panel, they can still trust the product thanks to those third-party certifications,” says Dan MacCombie, co-founder and co-CEO of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Runa.
All Runa products are USDA Organic, Fair Trade USA and kosher certified, as well as Non-GMO Project Verified. Runa is also a Certified B Corp.
“We put our certification seals on every piece of collateral we create,” says MacCombie. “It’s not the primary differentiator of our product, but it’s something we always want our customers to be aware of. The values of organic, the Non-GMO Project and Fair Trade go hand-in-hand with the values of our products. They’re very complimentary to each other.”
Even brands that built their business on dietary necessity are seeing the value in transparency. In addition to its commitment to provide consumers with safe, gluten-free foods, Glutino has verified twelve of its products with the Non-GMO Project, with more to come. “Through this certification, we are able to provide our consumers with the power to make informed decisions based on their dietary preferences, whatever they might be,” says Laura Kuykendall, vice president of marketing for Glutino, a division of Boulder, Colo.-based Boulder Brands.
Consumers can support Certified B Corps and its member companies not only on the shelves, but by individual store. The number of Certified B Corp grocers is rapidly growing, and currently certified retailers are doing all they can to spread the “B The Change” message, say B Lab officials.
New Seasons Markets, based in Portland, Ore., became a Certified B Corp grocery store in March 2013. Since introducing its certification to its staff and customers, New Seasons has made an active commitment to helping other retailers become certified, while sharing their own tips and tricks for making the most of the B Corp Certification, say New Seasons officials.
“When we did promotions for B Corp Certified products, we saw those highlighted products sell very well,” says Sarah Joannides, director of business planning for New Seasons. “People were drawn to those products and I assume that the reason behind the sales spike was because customers connected to the values the brands were standing for and had the desire to try them out and support them.”
New Seasons promotional efforts included endcap displays featuring products from Certified B Corps and shelf-tags. The retailer also created a shopping list outlining all products from Certified B Corps in their stores and utilized its weekly circular, website and delivery bikes and trucks to spread the message.
With nearly 1,000 Certified B Corps in existence, the B Corp community has a large reach via social media—about 24 million consumers. “Through these recent promotions, retailers have said it’s a great conversation starter with their customers, and we’re seeing consumers take that conversation online to encourage other companies to join the community,” says Vale Jokisch, director of services for Wayne, Pa.-based Certified B Corps.
The new seals on the shelf
Now considered the founding father of better-for-you certifications, the USDA Organic seal has gone mainstream. It is present in every retail channel from mass to convenience, and in every category from produce to nonfoods. In order to continue to provide consumers with heightened levels of trust and transparency, manufacturers have sought the approval of a new class of organizations to verify their practices and products.
• The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices. The Bellingham, Wash.-based organization offers third-party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products. As of March 2014, there were more than 16,000 items verified by the Non-GMO Project, a 200% increase over the previous year.
• Fair Trade USA, the Oakland, Calif.-based third-party certifier of Fair Trade Certified products, was founded in 1998 with a focus on imported coffee. Simply put, choosing Fair Trade Certified products means that the producers of that product are justly compensated. Since its founding, farmers and farm workers across all product industries and regions have earned more than $153 million in Fair Trade premiums. The last two years alone represented half of these gains. Fair Trade premiums topped $39 million in 2013, a 5% increase over 2012.
• Certified B Corps are companies that use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. Rather than certifying a singular product, the B Lab organization evaluates companies’ environmental policies and practices to a set of standards. Certified companies have to meet a minimum performance level on B Lab’s metrics.
“The value of the B Corp certification is that it helps consumers identify truly good companies, not just good marketing,” says Vale Jokisch, director of services for the Wayne, Pa.-based organization. “With consumer research and trends, we know that people are increasingly interested in the companies behind their products. It is our hope that when people think about using their dollars to support good companies, that B Corp is the first thing that comes to their mind.”