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The customer is not always right: Why supermarkets show we have a problem with evidence

Last month, a group of scientists sent an open letter to ten UK supermarkets, accusing them of “seriously misinforming customers on health risks”.

The Voice of Young Science (VoYS) campaign says that by using “negative claims” – advertising products as free from ingredients such as MSG, aspartame, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or parabens – supermarkets are playing up unfounded health fears. Such labelling, they say, is as meaningless as marketing a “low sodium drain cleaner”, or “asbestos-free deodorant”.

In a recent speech, author Mark Lynas called the controversy over genetic modification “one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century”. Once an anti-GMO campaigner with Friends of the Earth, he has since been swayed, and now argues that “millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory”.

Why do supermarkets use negative claims? Marks & Spencer told VoYS that its products are free from GMOs due to “customer concerns”. Asda says its policies are “led by our customers”. We end up in a kind of vicious cycle, with supermarkets helping to perpetuate health scares rather than looking at the evidence.

Of course, there is a shared responsibility here. Sometimes people just don’t want to hear the evidence – why else would millions be spent every year on homeopathy? You only have to look at the recent measles outbreak in Swansea, or the impact of AIDS denialism in South Africa, to see that scares founded on hype and misinformation can cause real harm. Consumers should be more sceptical, and realise that it’s ok to ask about evidence. The government needs to do more to improve public understanding of science, while the media has a responsibility to fact-check the science behind headlines. But companies must also work to make sure their customers are as informed as possible about the products they are buying.

Businesses are rightfully wary of taking a “we know best” attitude, but pandering to hype is unproductive and potentially dangerous. Behaviour change is a growing trend in the world of CSR, whereby companies are looking for ways to “nudge” consumers towards more sustainable behaviour, without dictating or judging. Could this be a solution?

Unilever, which recently admitted the difficulty of selling refillable pouches and reduced-salt foods to suspicious customers, has developed the idea of five “levers for change” in behaviour. The first of these is “make it understood” – educating consumers in order to raise awareness and encourage acceptance.

Companies have a responsibility to help their customers make informed, healthy choices. According to a recent survey, people trust businesses more than they trust governments and the media – and that trust is rising.

Let’s make sure it’s deserved.

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