Climate labels might get you to buy different meat

"Climate-labeling clearly affects consumers—both those people who are keen to be aware of the climate impact, as well as those who actively seek to ignore this sort of knowledge," says Jonas Nordström. (Credit: Getty Images)

Climate labels about a meat product’s carbon footprint cause many people to choose a climate-friendlier option, research suggests.

The finding, based on hypothetical purchasing decisions among Swedish consumers, applied to both people who were curious about a product’s carbon footprint and those who actively avoided wanting to know more.

As such, climate labeling food products can be a good way of reducing our climate footprint. But the labels must be obligatory for them to be effective, says Jonas Nordström, associate professor in the University of Copenhagen’s food and resource economics department.

Certain situations exist in which we humans strategically avoid greater knowledge and more information—a phenomenon known as “active information avoidance.” It could be that we don’t want to know how many calories are in the bag of chips that we’ve just opened. Or, that we avoid going to the doctor because we fear a certain diagnosis.

“Our experiments demonstrate that one out of three people doesn’t want to know the climate impact of the food they eat. But at the same time, we can see that there is a psychological effect when people are informed on its climate impact, in so far as more people end up buying a less CO2 heavy product,” says Nordström.

In the experiment, 803 participants had to choose between six alternatives consisting of variations of ground meat and a plant-based mixture, each without a climate label. The participants were then asked whether or not they wanted to know the climate information for the products. Of the participants, 33% said no. All of them were then asked to make new choices, where the products now had a label with their CO2 information.

For those who said yes to the information, there was a 32% reduction in the climate footprint through their new product choices, while the “information avoiders” collectively reduced their footprint by 12% after exposure to the climate labeling.

The researchers believe that a portion of the information avoiders actively chose to opt out of more information as a way of remaining unknowledgeable—for example to avoid any inner conflict between what they want to do and what they ought to do.

“Our assumption is that being aware of a product’s climate impact has a psychological cost for the consumer. If someone who enjoys red meat is informed of its climate impact, it may prompt them to feel a bit of shame or have a guilty conscience. By actively opting out of this information, it becomes less uncomfortable to make a choice that would be seen as a climate sin,” explains Nordström.

“However, if information about the climate impact is forced upon the consumer, some will opt to buy chicken instead of beef, and in so doing, mitigate some of the negative feelings associated with making a decision that has a greater climate consequence. In our experiment, this resulted in a 12% lower carbon footprint.”

While some Danish supermarkets have begun to inform consumers about the climate effects of their purchasing decisions, there are few products with labeled CO2 footprint information. The researchers believe that the study’s results can be used as an argument for implementing obligatory climate information on foodstuffs.

“Climate-labeling clearly affects consumers—both those people who are keen to be aware of the climate impact, as well as those who actively seek to ignore this sort of knowledge. The study demonstrates that the latter group can only be affected if they are provided with the information. For climate labeling to be effective, it needs to be obligatory as certain producers of climate threatening products won’t voluntarily provide their products with this type of information,” says Nordström.

He adds that the effect could be even greater if there is a simultaneous drive towards informing the public that everyone’s contribution is important when it comes to achieving climate goals.

Coauthors of the study, published in the journal Food Policy, are from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Source: University of Copenhagen