nudging sustainable diets

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Food apps have untapped potential to nudge people toward greener diets

An extensive new study tested a different nudges and found a few simple, cheap ones that reduced a meal's carbon footprint by up to 76%.
May 6, 2022

With people stuck at home, bored and with a little more cash to burn, food deliveries exploded over the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021. Now new research says there is a way to tap into this growing industry to promote greener meal choices. 

If online delivery platforms in the UK take a simple step to prompt consumers to think about their environmental impact before they make their food selection, they can successfully be nudged towards meal choices that reduce emissions by up to 76% finds the new paper, which published as a pre-print (meaning it has has yet to be peer-reviewed).

This isn’t a wholly new idea: consumers are increasingly being targeted with green marketing prompts that try to steer them towards more sustainable choices, whether those are for vegan sausages, or plastic-free products. These prompts are typically built on the psychological theory of ‘nudging’, an idea that’s been around since the 1940s, and which holds that individual behavior and choices can be steered through indirect interventions—such as the precise layout of a store, or using specific colors to guide consumers towards certain products. 

However, research also shows that there are limits to what nudging can achieve. The experts on the new study wanted to find out whether they could amp up its impact with auxiliary approaches—such as priming delivery app users to reflect on their food choices, before being confronted with the online menu. 

Their question took shape in an extensive survey of 3074 people in the UK. These individuals were broken into subgroups, each receiving a different version of an online menu that tested a different approach to encouraging more sustainable selections—including one scenarios that used a traffic light system as the ‘nudge’ to guide consumers towards greener meal options. 

Among these was the priming approach, which the researchers called ‘Nudge+’. In this scenario, participants were asked to read an environmental pledge, either before or after they saw the menu. The researchers surmised that this might give the consumers a moment to reflect on the impact of their choices, instead of just blindly selecting whatever looks most delicious online.

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Their hunch turned out to be right. While all the treatment conditions led to more participants making lower-emission orders, the Nudge+ scenario drove more environmentally-conscious behavior than anything else. In this case, participants who’d read the pledge before (but not after) selecting their order chose meals that were 76% less emissions-intensive than the baseline.

Compared to groups exposed to other sustainability prompts, carbon emissions associated with food choices in this Nudge+ group fell by a full 30%, far outstripping the effectiveness of other measures. 

This suggests that by simply giving their captive audience a moment to reflect, online menus offer a powerful opportunity to influence consumer choice. It’s notable that this strategy only worked before consumers saw a menu, suggesting that it primes people to respond positively to environmental nudges when it comes to actually choosing food.

This highlights the potential of the UK delivery industry to shift consumer choices—an industry that experienced an almost 20% increase in users during the 2020 pandemic, and therefore has growing influence. These changes would also be simple and cheap for delivery apps to implement, for instance requiring simple push-in notifications on screen, the researchers write. 

By introducing small changes such as these to their user-engagement platforms, “Food delivery companies can contribute to net–zero goals,” they believe.

Banerjee et. al. “What works best in promoting climate citizenship? A randomised, systematic evaluation of nudge, think, boost and nudge+Research Square . 2022.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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