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The Supermarket Sweep: What Do Labels (Not) Tell Us?
A workshop activity that encourages students to assess the differences between product information in relation to sustainability, and actual impacts at different stages. The idea of informing the consumer to make better choices is challenged.


By: Gill Seyfang (University of East Anglia)

Session type: Single session, Graduate level, Small/Medium/Large size


  • Sustainability impacts

  • Product labeling

  • Critique of rational choice


Introduction to the teaching example:

The exercise aims to assess the concept and action of educating consumers about sustainability consequences in an effort to impact their purchasing decisions.


Before class, students are divided into groups and given two assignments to do. The activity can also be completed in one sitting.


First, a single category of consumer goods—such as bread, apples, orange juice, coffee, laundry detergent, tins of tuna, toilet paper, etc.—is assigned to each student group. They are then encouraged to visit a store or supermarket and take note of all the different product information that is offered to customers in order to assist them in selecting the option that is the most environmentally-friendly for that particular product category. These could be slogans promoting sustainability, labels, indices, package components, images, numbers, indicators, certifications, country of origin, transportation modes, etc. Alternatively, this activity can easily be carried out in the classroom with internet research. 


Second, students are instructed to conduct some internet research to determine where and when (i.e., during the extraction of raw materials, manufacture, distribution, use, or disposal) the product category has the greatest economic, social, political, and environmental sustainability repercussions. Here, online tools like the Buycott app and the Ethical Consumer Magazine are useful.


In order to combine these two activities, the groups pool their findings for discussion in a classroom session. Students enter product information and sustainability implications into an activity snapshot matrix using two different colors. The information about the product is then compared to the main effects of the product, where they are similar or different, and the students discuss this link. The groups then come up with a solution to improve labeling systems so that they can reflect sustainability impacts in a better way.

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