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Carbon labeling of food shifts people’s behavior—even among those actively trying to avoid information

A clever study suggests that you simply can’t unknow your food's carbon footprint
April 6, 2021

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Carbon footprint labels cause people to choose meat products with 25% lower climate impact, according to a study of hypothetical purchasing decisions conducted in Sweden. The study lends support to an emerging strategy of carbon labeling in grocery stores—but suggests such labels have to be carefully designed in order to reach those who might rather not think about the environmental impact of their food.

The global food system is responsible for at least one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and meat has an especially large carbon footprint. Consumers know relatively little about the climate impact of food, prompting the notion that providing more information might nudge them to make more climate-friendly choices.

But there’s also evidence that people avoid uncomfortable information in a variety of realms, including food purchasing. For example, people sometimes turn down the opportunity to learn about the calories in a package of cookies, or the animal welfare issues associated with mass-produced meat. In essence, people may avoid information that they suspect will challenge their beliefs or make them feel bad about their choices in some way.

To find out how this tendency could affect the rollout of food carbon labeling, researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences administered an online questionnaire to 803 people in Sweden.

First, they asked study participants to choose which of six minced protein products to buy: ground beef, beef and pork, pork, chicken, beef and beans, or a meat substitute. Then they asked whether study participants would like to have information about the climate impact of the products.

Finally, they asked participants to choose again—but this time the list of products also included the carbon footprint information, regardless of whether or not the participant had asked for it. The survey also included a range of questions about participants’ attitudes about climate change and eating meat.

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One-third of participants said that they did not want information about the climate impacts of the products on offer, the researchers report in the journal Food Policy.

However, both those who asked for information about the carbon footprint of the products and those who turned it down changed their purchasing decisions after they saw the information—becoming less likely to choose the high-carbon beef and pork options and more likely to choose the meat substitute.

This suggests some of the people who declined the carbon footprint information were actively trying to avoid it, rather than not caring one way or the other, the researchers say.

Overall, the climate impact of participants’ choices was 25% lower in round two than in round one. Those who expressed a wish to learn about the climate impact of the products reduced their emissions by 32%, and the decline was 12% even among those who didn’t want the climate impact information.

The findings suggest that carbon labeling of food has the potential to shift behavior among those who aren’t looking for the information—and even among those who are actively trying to avoid it. But to do that, the label will have to be carefully designed: for example, the information needs to be presented simply, and in a can’t miss spot on the front of the package. “If a label is difficult to avoid, the effects are likely to be considerably larger,” the researchers write.

Source: Edenbrandt A.K. et al.Interested, indifferent or active information avoiders of carbon labels: Cognitive dissonance and ascription of responsibility as motivating factors.” Food Policy 2021.

Image: Rob and Julia Campbell/Stocksy

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