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Eco-labeling promotes sustainable food choices

Livestock production contributes an estimated 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating global warming and leading to degraded ecosystems, as well as loss of biodiversity and water resources. According to a variety of recent studies, adopting a mainly plant-based diet could be an important step towards solving these problems.

Now, a research team led by the University of Bristol has investigated what strategies are most effective in promoting such diets. Their analysis revealed that one way of promoting sustainable diets is to label food products with information about sustainability (eco-labeling), such as providing details of water and land usage and greenhouse emissions by using a traffic light system. Another effective strategy was found to be social nudging, which involved telling consumers that a particular product is the most popular choice.

The scientists enrolled a cohort of UK adults in order to form three groups. In each group the participants were shown a menu containing three different meal options – a beef burrito, a chicken burrito, and a vegetarian burrito – and asked to choose one option that they might like to eat in the future.

The first group were shown the burrito options accompanied by an eco-label showing the sustainability level of each meal in a traffic light system (beef burrito – red, or unsustainable, chicken burrito – amber, or neither sustainable nor unsustainable, and vegetarian burrito – green, or sustainable). Group two were shown the vegetarian burrito accompanied by a popularity label consisting of a gold star next to the works “Most Popular,” and group three (the control group) were shown neither the eco-label nor the social nudge.

The researchers discovered that both the eco-label and the social nudge were highly effective at influencing the choice of the most sustainable option, with the eco-label being the most effective between the two in promoting sustainable choices. Moreover, participants with a higher motivation to act sustainably were more likely to choose the vegetarian burrito.

These findings suggest that future policy should include eco-labeling and/or social nudges to reduce meat consumption and mitigate global warming. “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 standardized nutritional information on food packaging, would facilitate more sustainable choices and decrease customer confusion,” the authors concluded.

The study is published in the journal Behavioral Public Policy

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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