New research suggests restaurant menu labeling could mitigate climate change 2023

Would customers order differently at restaurants if they knew the carbon impact of their food?

The global food system produces nearly a third of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and some restaurants are disclosing menu item emissions to reduce their climate effect.

According to new research from Colorado State University’s College of Business and the University of Arkansas, these labels can affect consumers’ choices but have unexpected repercussions. Garrett Rybak’s dissertation inspired the study.

The marketing department’s Chris Berry and co-authors investigated consumers’ reactions to three menu labels that restaurants may use to reflect the CO2e emissions needed to make a meal.

In a special edition on climate change in Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, their research is among the first to address CO2e emissions labeling from a marketing standpoint. Berry and his co-authors employed the same conceptual frameworks used for decades in nutrition labeling research to uncover solutions to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Berry hopes it will pave the way for climate change research.

“We’re beginning to see a number of papers looking at different ways consumers can make more environmentally friendly decisions across contexts,” he said. “This area is just beginning to take off—and, I hope, gaining traction in our field.”

Research demonstrates that CO2e labels function.

Berry and his co-authors used three menu labels in two trials to assess consumers’ reactions to carbon footprint information.

The first menu label lists each item’s carbon footprint in numbers. The World Resources Institute’s “Cool Foods Meals” menu scheme, recently adopted by Panera Bread, indicates goods below a certain emission threshold. The third approach labels high-emission items with stop signs.

Berry stated the numeric information works well. “Cool Foods Meals” may mislead consumers, according to studies.

“If you have an item that’s just above the threshold and an item that’s just under the threshold, then what a number of consumers are doing is they’re choosing the item that’s just under the threshold—so, the one with the ‘Cool Foods’ menu icon,” Berry said.

If two menu items have similar environmental impacts but only one is qualified for the icon, it may mislead consumers. Consumers may debate salad kinds instead of the benefits of ordering a salad instead of a hamburger.

The studies found that adding numeric information about a meal’s CO2e emissions to a restaurant’s menu may be the most objective and least likely to mislead consumers.

Menu labels were also found to improve restaurant ratings.

“Even in the presence of that stop sign warning, they’re actually perceiving the restaurant to be more concerned about the environment,” Berry said.

Berry has spent decades studying customers’ reactions to food labeling and nutrition disclosures, from restaurant calorie labels to cigarette product health warnings.

“I’m applying my expertise on disclosures and health communications to an environmental sustainability context, which, personally, I feel is extremely important as we combat climate change,” Berry said.

CO2e emissions labeling is discretionary and unregulated, unlike calorie labeling, which became mandated for many eateries in 2018.

“There’s no mandate—there’s not even self-regulation around this yet—which provides the opportunity to look at potential avenues for disclosure,” Berry added.

He said encouraging people to adopt climate-conscious food choices is one approach to fight climate change. Consumers should consider how their daily choices—from lunch to commuting—impact the environment.

“In my opinion, this is just one piece of the puzzle—an important piece, but one piece in fighting climate change,” Berry added. “I hope this inspires more research on CO2e communications and disclosures in other contexts.”

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