Ecolabels: Hype or hope for sustainable food choices?

Substantial reductions in meat consumption are required by 2030, if the UK is to deliver on its target of net zero carbon emissions. Ecolabels that give consumers information about the environmental impact of individual food products are the focus of much discussion around nudging people to make more sustainable choices. Of a range of policy options, labelling is one of the most accepted by the public, but can ecolabels actually change the foods that people select? We conducted a series of studies to try to understand how people might respond.

Online trials     

Ecolabels on an online supermarket webpage

We conducted two UK studies looking at whether different ecolabels might change what people chose to put in their shopping baskets. We used an experimental online supermarket platform that looked like a real online supermarket, but where participants did not really pay money or receive food. The first study compared three labels — presenting impacts for four different environmental indicators; or a composite score with values from A to E; or both together — against control with no labels. The second study tested four designs (against control) — 1. A-E labels as in the first study, 2. coloured globes with A-E scores, 3. red globes highlighting 'worse' products, and 4. green globes highlighting 'better' products. 

Both studies found ecolabels significantly reduced the environmental impact of items in the shopping basket, for all except one of the label designs, compared to no labels being shown. The exception was green globes highlighting 'better' products, which is the current norm given such labels are voluntary, where there was no evidence these were effective. These studies suggested providing ecolabels that highlight those products that are ‘worse’ as well as those that are ‘better’ could be a promising intervention to encourage selecting more sustainable products. 

How does this fit alongside nutrition labels?

Nutrition labels are commonly used and adding ecolabels alongside could support consumers to make healthier and more sustainable choices. But would ecolabels work as well when consumers are faced with information from these as well as nutrition labels? In our third study, participants visited the experimental online supermarket platform, and were randomised to see products with ecolabels, nutrition labels, both, or none. Compared to no labels, there were significant reductions in the environmental impact of products placed in shopping baskets when ecolabels were presented, with no evidence of different effectiveness if nutrition labels were also shown. This suggests ecolabels may be effective at encouraging more sustainable purchases when used alongside existing nutrition labels. 

But what about the real world?      

Canteen with food and ecolabels showing environmental impact of dishes

Our first three studies used an online experimental supermarket, leaving the effectiveness of ecolabels involving real food purchases unclear. To dig into this a little, we collaborated with a nationwide catering provider to examine the effect of ecolabels on the environmental impact of purchases in worksite cafeterias

We randomised 28 worksite cafeterias for staff working at manufacturing or distribution centres to either control or adding ecolabels to their menus. Between May and September 2021, the 13 sites in the ecolabel condition labelled hot meals with stickers indicating the environmental impact, from A-E, of each option next to the name of the meal on printed menus. We found no evidence of an impact of these ecolabels on the mean environmental impact of meals purchased.  The potential effectiveness in this trial was limited by the narrow range of options available: approximately half of the main meal options sold were rated ‘E’, with the highest impact, in both control and intervention sites.

Where does this leave us?

It’s unclear whether ecolabels may be effective in other real-world contexts, for example, if a wider range of more vs. less sustainable options were available, or in more diverse workplaces. It’s also possible that ecolabels would have an impact on food provision by encouraging providers to increase the availability of lower environmental impact options, rather than changing consumers’ selections. 

From our studies, we believe that even if ecolabels do prove effective, alone they will not be sufficient to alter consumer behaviour to the extent required. Given they may prove ineffective on their own in real world purchasing contexts, it’s especially important to look to other strategies to alter the food purchasing environment.