top of page

Eco-labels on menus could help consumers make more sustainable choices

A Black man with a goatee and a fade haircut in a collared button down shirt and a white woman with curly hair pulled back wearing a turtleneck shirt examine a menu at a restaurant table.
Image Credit: Wix

Imagine, you sit down at a new restaurant that just opened, thank the server for seating you, open the menu, and pasted next to various entrées and appetizers are labels like “responsibly farmed,” “certified sustainable seafood,” “fair trade,” and “certified naturally grown.”

When the server comes back minutes later with glasses of water and asks you if you’re ready to order, do these “eco-labels,” affect your choice for dinner?

As sustainably sourcing food becomes more common in our fight against climate change, so do little green leaf tags on menus, among the familiar symbols of spice-level and “house favorite.” When presented with these labels on menus, are you nudged to make the more sustainable choice? According to new research published in the journal Behavioural Public Policy, the answer is yes.

The first-of-its-kind study led by researchers at the University of Bristol found that providing a “traffic light rating” of eco-friendliness next to menu items significantly increased the likelihood of diners choosing the option better for the planet.

According to lead author Katie De-loyde, via Science Daily, “Adding a traffic light eco-label to menus increased the selection of more sustainable food items. Furthermore, and somewhat surprisingly, participants were positive about the eco-label, with a huge 90% of participants supporting the idea.”

“Pending replication in real-world settings, our results suggest future policy could include mandatory eco-labeling, just like the health traffic light system, on food products as a way to promote more sustainable diets,”

In the study, participants were presented with a mock delivery app menu and prompted to choose between a hypothetical meal (a beef, chicken, or vegetarian burrito). When picking, they were randomly allocated one of the following conditions: eco-label, “social nudge,” or nothing at all, which served as the control.

In each condition, each burrito was labeled “fair-trade.” In the eco-label condition, the menu included a traffic-light-like scale, rating the sustainability of an item from one to five. Five, a bright red, indicates the most unsustainable, and a green number one indicates the most sustainable. The analogous colors in the middle connoted a degree of sustainability in between. On the menu, the vegetarian filling was the most sustainable, with chicken in the middle, and beef far behind.

The “social nudge” condition, on the other hand, simply included the fair-trade label with a “most popular” star next to the vegetarian option. The study also included conditions for each burrito such as the same price, and similar photos and calorie content, so these factors would not sway participants.

Of the 1,399 adult participants, the findings showed that 5% more went veggie when presented with the scale, while 17% more went vegetarian or chicken compared to the control group. According to De-loyde, "The eco-label was particularly effective among those people who reported already being motivated to act sustainably. This suggests these kinds of labels help people make dietary decisions which are in line with their personal values."

The eco-ratings on the menus are consistent with research measuring CO2 emissions, water usage, and the impact on the biodiversity each burrito ingredient poses. Beef has the highest carbon footprint of the options, with an average of 36 kilograms of CO2 produced per kilogram of a food product. And that doesn’t even include methane. Of high-emitting foods, beef sits at the top, nearly four times the mean footprint of chicken, and 10 to 100 times the footprint of most plant-based foods. Burritos would’ve also included ingredients like rice, beans, and maybe avocado, which all have a footprint 20% the size of chicken’s.

Biodiversity is also affected by these products when more trees are cut down to convert land for crop growing, resulting in habitat loss. Two studies published last year show that our current rate of meat-eating could lead to habitat loss for 17,000 species by 2050. The Bristol study sits on the shoulders of accumulating research that shows meat-heavy lifestyles have larger carbon footprints and threaten wildlife, while vegetarian lifestyles reduce personal carbon footprints by half and vegan lifestyles by even more.

The University of Bristol was the first UK university to declare a climate emergency and the first to work towards Climate Action Plans (CAP) for all its schools. As far as the researchers are aware, this is the first study to directly compare an eco-label with a social nudge, as well as consider any interaction between this labeling and motivation to act sustainability.

The authors hope to continue this research, possibly in a naturalistic, real-life setting, and by using more specific social nudges in future experiments, such as ‘Our customers love’, ‘We recommend, or sustainability-themed nudges such as ‘Join a growing movement.’

This idea comes after World Resources Institute conducted a multi-stage experiment earlier this year that tested sustainability-themed messaging on menus. Similarly, the results suggested that displaying thoughtfully framed environmental messages on restaurant menus could help to nudge diners to order more vegetarian meals.

In the optional survey after the present study, some participants even said that the eco-labels deterred their initial preference for beef. While the study has limitations such as the lack of control in online environments, it overall suggests that the traffic-light sustainability scale has some sway on adults when choosing a meal.

While the vegetarian selection was lowest across the board, the eco-label was able to increase the choice among meat eaters, which the researchers attribute to a likely adverse reaction to the red-labeled beef.

Moreover, 90% of participants support restaurants implementing the eco-label scale. The results suggest that implementing a mandatory grading system would allow consumers to compare products, fill educational gaps on sustainability, and allow diners to make more sustainable choices. Plus, it also suggests that a scale would elicit a less negative response than a social nudge, and is generally supported by a majority-meat-eating public.

Currently, many companies use unregulated eco-labels and false certifications as advertising techniques. This type of greenwashing leads to consumer confusion on if a product is truly sustainable or not.

But just like nutrition labels are regulated, a regulated traffic-light scale would mitigate confusion and allow more people to play a part in mitigating climate change.

bottom of page