Good News: Eco-labels on menu options prompt diners to make more sustainable choices

Adding a traffic light eco-label to menus increased the selection of more sustainable food items. Furthermore, and somewhat surprisingly, participants were positive about the eco-label, with a huge 90% of participants supporting the idea," said lead author Katie De-loyde. Credit: Edwin Tan, GettyImages

By Gillian Ramirez, Alliance Intern from the University of California, San Diego

A study done by the University of Bristol highlights the potential for increasing sustainable food choices through eco-labeled menus. The net result was an increase of 5%. Overall, 90% of participants highly supported eco-labels.

It is estimated that 14.5% of human-induced GHG emissions are from livestock production, suggesting that plant-based lifestyles can be an effective change to minimize overall emissions. “Evidence indicates that consumers are relatively unaware of how their diet could change the environment.” Introducing standardized, accessible eco-labels which identify the environmental footprint of a food item has “been shown to be a viable and effective meta label that is easy to understand by the consumers.”

Conducted amongst 1399 individuals, participants were randomly assigned one of three conditions: control (no label), social nudge or eco-labelling. The control looked like any menu, simply stating calories and spice level. The social nudge condition looked the same as the control except it included a Most Popular star next to the vegetarian burrito. The eco-labelled menus include a sustainability-measuring traffic light with numbers scaling from 1-5 in how eco-friendly they were. The participants then made their choice between a beef, chicken or vegetarian burrito. 

Choice of the beef burrito was highest in the control condition (33%) and lower in the social nudge (29%) and eco-label (16%) conditions. Choice of the vegetarian burrito was highest in the eco-label condition (14%), followed by the social nudge condition (13%) and lowest in the control condition (9%). While the vegetarian burrito was not the most popular choice overall, chicken is still a more eco-friendly option and should not negate the success of the study.

Social norms aren’t as successful or supported as eco-labels (53% vs 90%) as a way to increase sustainable food choices. However, they are easier to implement and do not require much cognitive analysis by consumers. Social norms are equally important to consider because “eco-labelling might have unintended consequences for people with lower motivation to act sustainably, who might reject the encouragement to behave in a certain way, possibly as a way to restore their perceived freedom in an act of defiance.”

A regulated traffic light eco-label, similar to standardized nutritional information on food packaging, would facilitate more sustainable choice and decrease customer confusion.” Environmental education paired with sustainably-measured food labels can significantly increase individual contributions to decreasing GHG emissions via a more plant-based diet.

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