Climate Labels on Food Products can Reduce CO2 Footprint

Climate labels that inform people about the carbon footprint of a certain meat product drive many of them to choose other alternatives that are more climate-friendly.

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This approach applies to individuals who want to know more about the carbon footprint of a certain product and also to those who actively avoid learning more. The results have been published in a recent study from the University of Copenhagen, among others.

In this context, food products that contain climate labels can be an excellent way to reduce the climate footprint. However, according to the investigator behind the latest study, labels can be effective only if they are made obligatory.

There are certain scenarios where people deliberately avoid more information and greater knowledge. This phenomenon is referred to as 'active information avoidance.'

One theory is that people do not want to find out the amounts of calories contained in a bag of chips which they had recently unpacked. Or, they simply avoid going to the doctor because they do not want to receive a certain diagnosis.

Yet another theory is that people do not care to find out how their shopping habits at the supermarkets have an impact on the climate.

This was the finding of a recent study performed by the University of Copenhagen and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, which analyzed the efficacy of the climate impact data as a means to impact consumer choice.

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.

Jonas Nordström, Associate Professor, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen

Information Could Have a Cost

The researchers performed an experiment in which 803 participants were asked to select between six alternatives containing variations of a plant-based mixture and ground meat, and each without a climate label.

The study participants were subsequently asked if they want to know more about the climate data for these food products, but 33% of the participants had stated no. Then, all the participants were asked to make new choices, where the food products now contained a label with their CO2 data.

For participants who said yes to the CO2 data, there was a 32% reduction in the climate footprint via their new product choices, whereas the “information avoiders” jointly decreased their footprint by as much as 12% after being subjected to the climate labeling.

The researchers, therefore, believe that a part of the “information avoiders” actively seek to opt out of more data as a means to remain unknowledgeable—for instance, to prevent any internal struggle between what they wish to do and what they must 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.

Jonas Nordström, Associate Professor, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen

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 percent lower carbon footprint,” Nordström added.

Climate Labeling Ought to be Obligatory

Although a few Danish supermarkets have started to inform consumers about the effects of their purchasing decisions on carbon footprint, there are some products that contain labeled COfootprint data. The team believes that the study findings can be used as a debate for adopting obligatory climate data 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.

 Jonas Nordström, Associate Professor, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen

He added, “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.”

Nordström further added that the impact could be much higher if there is a concurrent drive toward informing people that collective contribution is crucial when it comes to realizing climate goals.

It must be remembered that the new study is purely based on theoretical purchasing choices among Swedish consumers. Therefore, the outcomes should also be validated among Danish consumers in an in-store experimental test.

Journal Reference:

Edenbrandt, A. K., et al. (2021) Interested, indifferent or active information avoiders of carbon labels: Cognitive dissonance and ascription of responsibility as motivating factors. Food Policy.

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