Science - March 13, 2012

Lunch labels with climate info? No thank you!

Food labels with information about the CO2 footprint are of little use. We don't like our lunchtime to be meddled with.

voetafdruk.png
That's the message from a study conducted in the Restaurant of the Future in Wageningen. Commissioned by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, researchers from Food & Biobased Research and the Environmental Policy Group tested the effect of environmental labels on the buying behaviour of consumers. The trial took place in the Restaurant of the Future on campus, where buying behaviour of the lunch crowd comprising WUR employees is being observed on a long term basis.
Tiny foot
It would be difficult for so-called climate labels to go unnoticed by the restaurant's patrons; they were found on many products on the shelves for months. Each label had a tiny foot with a number to indicate how much CO2 is emitted to produce soup, bread spreads, salads and so on. A colour spectrum was later added to the footprint: from red (for high emissions) to green (for relatively low emissions). Video films, posters and flyers also provided extra information about food choices.
Peanuts
The impact of all these information is small. The labels are of little use, going by an analysis of the buying behaviour. Only regular patrons of the restaurant showed a negligible decrease of 49 grams of CO2 in their footprint. But that is peanuts: a bowl of vegetarian tomato soup already chalks up 580 grams of CO2. The sustainability blitz had a noticeable effect only on the consumption of mineral water. Sales of these dropped by twelve percent, in favour of (free) tap water.
Interference
The study also showed why labels alone cannot fundamentally change our lunch behaviour in canteens. We do not like our private matters to be meddled with. The lunch is considered to be a private moment, test persons revealed during discussions. Lunchtime is a habitual affair, a welcome break from work. And we don't want to spend too much thinking time in it.

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