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Consumers prioritize animal welfare over sustainability

DAILY SCIENCE

What drives consumers to more sustainable meat? Ironically, it isn’t telling them it’s sustainable.

A new large scale European survey found that animal welfare credentials were consistently more persuasive than environmental credentials.
May 31, 2024

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The emotive power of animal welfare is more likely to make people eat sustainably, than low-carbon footprints and other environmental credentials that foods boast on their labeling, a new study has found.

The analysis, published in Food Quality and Preference, aimed to drill down into the factors that drive people towards more sustainable dairy and meat products on grocery store shelves. And ironically, they’ve found, the answer isn’t telling people when foods are more sustainable. 

The surprising finding is drawn from an online survey provided to over 3,000 people, who were spread across the UK, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, and Czechia. The researchers asked these participants to rank 18 attributes on a scale of 1 (not at all important) to 5, (extremely important). The attributes ranged across themes relating to the taste, quality, and freshness of a product, its carbon footprint, fair trade ratings, and whether it was free range and pasture-fed. 

When they analyzed the huge trove of resulting data, the team found striking agreement across all five countries, that the most important qualities driving their purchasing choices were the freshness, quality/taste, and animal welfare credentials of a particular food. Environmental sustainability, overall, ranked lower in the pile. This means that consumers are more likely to buy dairy or meat if it advertises that it’s pasture-fed or free-range, than if it says it’s organic, uses sustainable packaging, is produced locally, has a lower carbon footprint, or reduced food miles. 

 

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Environmental credentials were still important to study participants (particularly, local production and sustainable packaging ranked higher than carbon footprint)—they just didn’t make it to the top of the list. And consumers across the five countries did generally agree that having a sustainability label on meat and dairy would be helpful and is something that they would seek out. When the researchers drilled even further into specifically what study participants would like to see on such a label, they ranked animal welfare, food safety, health and nutrition as the most important, and again, environmental credentials were notably absent. 

This finding has interesting echoes in previous research, which showed that consumers are more likely to support a meat tax if it goes towards animal welfare than if it’s devoted to tackling climate change. The new findings build on this to show that even if producers go to great lengths to make a product environmentally-sustainable, advertising that seemingly isn’t the best route to winning consumers’ hearts and minds—or wallets. 

Instead, the researchers have an idea: that linking environmental sustainability to welfare credentials on dairy and meat labels might be the surest way for consumers to make greener choices when they shop for dairy and meat. This would be more than a cheap marketing hack. The idea has roots in science, with yet another research paper showing that there is actually an overlap between improving animal welfare, and mitigating climate change. 

But in any case, the researchers think that labels are no a silver bullet when it comes to steering sustainable choices: the variables are just too complex. Instead, they believe we need a combination of education, labeling, and creative behavioral interventions in supermarkets, to move people towards foods that will leave a lighter footprint on the earth.

Ammann et. al. “Consumers across five European countries prioritise animal welfare above environmental sustainability when buying meat and dairy products.”

Image: Envato Elements

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