Can Eco-Labeling Inspire More Sustainable Eating?

You know logically that consuming meat and dairy products has an adverse effect on the environment. Methane — a harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) that cows, pigs, and other farm animals release into the atmosphere — has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. But, when you’re out to eat at a luxurious restaurant, don’t your culinary desires get the best of you? Is that delicious steak too tempting to pass up? What if each menu item offered eco-labeling — a quick sustainability index?

Would that help you to choose more wisely for the planet?

Evidence indicates that consumers are relatively unaware of how their diet damages the environment. One way to promote sustainable diets is to label food products with information about sustainability. Known as “eco-labeling,” this method provides details of water and land usage as well as GHG emissions and allows consumers to make comparisons across products. Eco-labeling is a relatively simple way to help meet global climate pollution reduction targets.

Traffic Lights Work — On Roads & As Self-Monitoring Devices

Past attempts at informing restaurant patrons through eco-labeling had only been moderately successful. However, a new approach in which labels condense information on a products’ environmental footprint with the icon of a traffic light seem to work much better.

The “Traffic Light Index” offers the following sustainability cues:

  • green = sustainable
  • yellow = moderate
  • red = unsustainable

If you’re wondering exactly how effective this kinda cute visual schema would work, so did researchers at the University of Bristol. This university was the first in the UK to declare a climate emergency and the first to work towards Climate Action Plans (CAP) for all its schools. Local knowledge about connections between food choices and environmental consequences became interesting as part of this campus-wide climate mission.

The researchers wanted to discover if increasing awareness of the impacts of different dishes would influence consumers to choose more sustainable options and support more eco-social ideals.

The team asked participants whether they would order a burrito with a beef, chicken, or vegetarian filling. Three mock-ups of food delivery app menus were created, each showing 3 burrito options with different accompanying information.

  • All menus contained a photo of each item as well as the calorie content, a Fairtrade logo, a spice indicator, and the price, which was the same for all options.
  • One mock-up also featured a “social nudge” — an indicator encouraging people to act according to the most sustainable option. This resembled a gold star, including the words “Most Popular” placed alongside the vegetarian burrito.
  • In another mock-up, each burrito was given the eco-label, with the beef option scoring “5” in red, highlighting it is unsustainable. The chicken option had a yellow “3,” indicating it was neither sustainable nor unsustainable, and the vegetarian option got a green “1” for sustainable.

Participants were randomly shown one of the 3 menu mock-ups and asked to pick a burrito option, as if they were normally ordering food. They were also asked follow-up questions designed to measure their level of motivation to act sustainably.

Findings showed 5% more of the 1,399 adult participants went veggie when the eco-labels were included, while 17% more went for vegetarian or chicken, the second most sustainable option. The results, published in the journal Behavioural Public Policy, also revealed that a third of the participants who were given the “control’ menu — without a social nudge or eco-label — went for the beef burrito. However, this dropped to 29% for those who had the social nudge menu, and to 16% for those who had the eco-labeled menu.

The traffic light rating of eco-friendliness next to dishes on the menu significantly increased the likelihood of diners choosing more sustainable options and show that viable and effective meta labels that are easy for consumers to understand are important to provide. Eco-labels prompt a higher motivation to act sustainably.

Lead author Katie De-loyde, Research Associate in Psychological Science, explained, “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.” De-loyde explained  that an eco-label is “particularly effective among those people who reported already being motivated to act sustainably.”

Why is Eco-Labeling Necessary? Meat & Marketing

Meat is big business — so much so that big meat brands and organizations in Europe have adopted 7 marketing myths that play to known consumer needs to feel accepted, successful, loved, respected and, ultimately, to feel “good.” The result? Eat more meat!

  • Myth 1: Meat is part of the climate solution, not the problem.
  • Myth 2: Meat is good for you.
  • Myth 3: Eating (red) meat makes you more of a man.
  • Myth 4: Good women prepare and serve meat to their family.
  • Myth 5: Eating meat is a patriotic act.
  • Myth 6: Eating meat brings people together.
  • Myth 7: Eating meat is about freedom and choice.

According to the study, titled “Dissected — The 7 Myths of Big Meat’s Marketing,” while the number of vegetarians, vegans, and flexitarians is rising in Europe, the meat industry is fighting back with all its persuasive might by investing millions of Euros in meat marketing in the attempt to slow the change in society.

More trees are cut down to convert land for crop growing, as around a third of all grain produced in the world is used to feed animals raised for human consumption. Overall, studies have shown that going vegetarian can reduce your carbon emissions from food by half, and going vegan can reduce this further. Flexitarian approaches to eating can make a difference, too.

Final Thoughts on Eco-Labeling

A recent Bloomberg article was titled, “You Don’t Have to Be Vegan to Help Save the Planet.” That’s why the University of Bristol eco-labeling investigation was so important. It tells us that we need multiple mechanisms to mitigate GHG emissions. Illuminating the role of the industrial animal industry as a significant cause of GHG emissions is one way among many toward the goal of a zero emissions world.

A larger goal behind eco-labeling is to accomplish sustainable development by enabling economic growth without compromising social and environmental well-being for current and future generations. Such circular policy programs depend largely on consumers making informed purchasing choices that support circular economy outcomes.

Often, consumers are reluctant to pay more for “green” products and desire clearer, easily comparable information on the environmental impact of a product. Eco-labels, just like other signs and prompts, are a way of informing the consumer about more sustainable product choices and advising them of how to use the product more sustainably by, for example, communicating its reusability, reparability, or recyclability attributes. Although companies are increasingly aware of the opportunities promised by a circular economy and are starting to realize its value potential for themselves and their stakeholders, product innovation and shifts towards true circular economy business models remain limited.

Transitioning to a circular economy depends on producers redesigning products, and eco-labeling can help signify the importance of product redesign. As one more tool for changing behavior by guiding the consumer towards more environmentally friendly purchase decisions, eco-labeling can lead to implementation of cleaner production methods and the emergence of new products.


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