Climate labels on fast-food menus can influence consumers to order less beef and opt for a more sustainable meal instead, according to new research.
Roughly one third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are linked to food production, and beef is one of the foods with the worst environmental impact. Meanwhile, fast food continues to be a major source of beef consumption in the U.S.; more than one-third of Americans eat beef on a typical day.
Looking for ways to shift consumer behavior, researchers from Johns Hopkins, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan tested two types of climate labels on fast-food menus.
THE RED LABEL EFFECT
Roughly 5,000 participants were randomly assigned to view one of three sample fast-food menus that the researchers created for the experiment. One menu used negative framing and red labels under every beef item to signal its “high climate impact.” The second menu positively framed “low climate impact” options with a green label under chicken, fish, and vegetarian meals. The third menu had no climate labels.
When asked to hypothetically select an item for dinner, those who looked at the red high-impact label avoided beef most – 61% chose a more sustainable option.
Among participants who looked at the green low-impact labels, 54.4% opted for a sustainable choice, and slightly less than half of those who received a menu with no climate labels decided to avoid beef.
The results show that both climate labels effectively increased the percentage of people who opted for a sustainable meal over beef, but negative framing was slightly more influential.
While this study offers an encouraging sign that climate labels could influence consumer behavior and reduce overall beef consumption, further research is needed to determine whether these findings could be replicated in a real-world setting.
The effectiveness of a climate label may also depend largely on the consumer’s pre-existing feelings about climate change.
“[Climate labels] are probably most useful in cases when climate-conscious consumers need a reminder nudge, or when climate-conscious consumers lack awareness in the first place,” Justin Labeille, associate director of climate research at Giving Green, told The Food Institute.
According to Labeille, a climate-conscious consumer who makes the decision to switch to a sustainable option based on climate labels is rewarded with positive feelings about their choice. Therefore, they’re less likely to view the switch as a sacrifice.
“However, for non-climate-conscious consumers, making a climate-conscious decision based on labels is more likely to be considered a sacrifice—and one they may be unlikely to make,” he said.
The Food Institute Podcast
Click the play button above to listen to the episode.
Have you heard of carbon-labeled menus? Sandra Noonan, chief sustainability officer at Just Salad, joined the Food Institute Podcast to discuss her company’s decision to launch carbon-labeled menus and the ethos behind the move, and what the industry could do to adopt the practice. In addition to the carbon-label initiative, Noonan discusses the launch of plant-based chicken, it’s reusable bowl policy, and the company’s focus on environmental sustainability.