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Climate and environment, Social and behavioural

Eco-labels on food encourage people to eat more sustainably

When menu options were accompanied by eco-labels, participants were less likely to choose a beef product, instead opting for more sustainable alternatives.

05 October 2022

By Emma Young

How can people be encouraged to eat less beef, to benefit the environment? According to the results of a new study in Behavioural Public Policy, a simple change to food labelling might help.

Katie De-loyde at the University of Bristol and colleagues created three mock-ups of menus, of the sort you might see in a food delivery app. Each of these menus featured three burritos — beef, chicken and vegetarian. For each burrito, the price (the same for each), the calorie content, a Fairtrade logo, a spice indicator and a photo of the product were all included.

In one mock-up, the team also included a 'social nudge' (something designed to encourage people to act according to social norms): the vegetarian burrito sported a gold star with the words 'Most Popular'.

In another version of the menu, each burrito was instead accompanied with an 'eco-label', indicating its ranking on a traffic light type scale of sustainability. The beef got a red 5 rating (for unsustainable), the chicken a yellow 3 (neither sustainable nor unsustainable) and the vegetarian a green 1 (sustainable).

De-loyde et al 2022
The three different versions of the menu presented to participants. From De-loyde et al (2022)

A total of 1399 adults, representative of the UK population in terms of age, gender and ethnicity, took part in the online study, which they were told was about food marketing. These participants were randomised to view one of the three menus. They were asked to pick a burrito option, according to how they would normally order food. Then they completed a few follow-up questions, including one about their level of motivation to act sustainably.

One third of the participants in the control condition went for the beef burrito. In the social nudge condition, this dropped slightly to 29%; in the eco-label condition, it was just 16%. The results also showed that more people chose the vegetarian burrito in the eco-label condition (14%) compared with the social nudge condition (13%), and the control condition (9%).

So overall, more people (84%) went for vegetarian or chicken (the more sustainable choices), instead of the beef burrito, in the eco-label condition, compared with the control (69%). The social nudge condition seemed to make people more likely to choose a vegetarian over a beef burrito, though not a vegetarian over a chicken burrito.

"Although both labels were effective at promoting participants to make more sustainable food choices, the eco-label was the most effective," the team concludes.

The team also found that participants who'd reported a low motivation to act sustainably were just as likely to choose a vegetarian burrito in each of the conditions (so neither the eco-label nor social nudge label affected their choice). However, for those reporting a high motivation to act sustainably, the eco-label condition in particular increased the likelihood that they would choose the vegetarian option.

Overall, there was also strong support for the eco-label, with 90% of the participants saying that they supported the idea of food being labelled in this way. A little more than half supported the social nudge.

As the team concedes, the work does have some limitations. Most notably, this was an online study in which no money changed hands and no food was eaten. Would people shopping in a supermarket and seeing the same labels make the same choices? More research is needed to explore this — and there's an urgent need for it.

By some estimates, the farming of livestock contributes 14.5% of human-induced global greenhouse gas emissions. Reports from various bodies, including the UK Committee on Climate Change and the United Nations, advocate reductions in the consumption of meat, particularly beef, and the movement towards a plant-based diet, to help mitigate global warming as well as to reduce the degradation of ecosystems and water resources.

As De-loyde and her team notes, eco-labels are already used on some food products. But there is no regulation of, and therefore no clear consistency in, in this labelling. They argue that this has led to consumer confusion about the sustainability of products.

In their study, the average score on the scale that assessed the participants' level of motivation to act sustainably was over the mid-point — and yet they reported eating meat an average of six times a week. As the team writes, "this suggests that consumer choices could further benefit from more information about their meal, via a mandatory eco-label, being presented on packaging. A regulated traffic light eco-label, similar to standardised nutritional information on food packaging, would facilitate more sustainable choices and decrease customer confusion."