Enabling environmentally-aware food choices


week 2 labels bottom of stairs


week 1 labels at counter


Rarely a day goes by where the word “sustainable” is not in the headlines. While renewable energy and flying less frequently are well-known ways to reduce your carbon footprint, there is an increasing awareness that the food we eat has a large impact on the natural environment. Research highlighting the environmental impacts of food has only recently become part of a common public dialogue. But while there is an increased demand for sustainable foods there is very little information for consumers.
One way to help people make more sustainable food choices is through environmental impact labelling: ecolabelling. Food shoppers are familiar with front-of-pack nutrition labelling, which can help guide consumers toward healthier food choices. While ecolabelling might seem like a simple solution to guide sustainable food choices, creating a meaningful ecolabel is not as straightforward as analysing how much salt or fat is in a product. 

The environmental footprint of a food largely depends on the production methods. Research shows that there can be a huge variation in environmental impacts even within food categories. For example, the greenhouse gas emissions of the highest impact beef production are 12 times higher than that of the lowest. Yet consumers generally don’t have access to this information to make their choices. So investigating how to create accurate and effective ecolabels is an important next step. 

The LEAP team is working hard to understand how effective ecolabels are at promoting sustainable food choices. After conducting two large systematic reviews, testing different ecolabel concepts in experimental supermarket studies, and discussing ecolabel prototypes in focus groups with members of the public, we have learned a lot. 

Many studies have shown that ecolabelling works, and indeed we have a review in submission that pulls together current evidence. There are a huge number of food labels in use globally right now that relate to sustainability in some way. Many labels indicate organic standards while others refer to agriculture and aquaculture practices, social standards (e.g. FairTrade), or animal welfare concerns. Our systematic review found that organic labels tend to be the most effective at influencing people to select or purchase these foods. However, this effect may relate to a wider perception of the value of organic food, or the status associated with buying into a brand. We wondered whether more specific environmental indicators would be effective at influencing consumers as well. 

As a first step, we developed individually-tailored ecolabels for lunch meals served at one of the University of Oxford canteens. Using detailed meal recipes, we calculated different meals’ environmental impacts across four indicators:  greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen pollution, water use, and biodiversity loss. 

In our two-week pilot study at the Oxford canteen we tried out two different ecolabel designs. We found that customers noticed the ecolabels and, crucially, seemed to understand them. An important part of this pilot was to see whether the canteen staff were able to use the labels easily each day without the support of the research team. We found that when staff were well-briefed they were keen to be strong  supporters of the project and found the labels easy to implement. All in all, the ecolabelling pilot was perceived to be a resounding success for everyone involved. 

In the coming weeks we had planned to finalize our methods in preparation to launch a formal randomised controlled trial across multiple University of Oxford sites. Although we have developed the protocol, the current situation with COVID-19 means we are unable to continue with plans to conduct the trial at the moment. Meanwhile, we are continuing to test further ecolabel designs on our virtual online supermarket platform to identify the designs most effective at promoting sustainable food selections. We will update the LEAP blog and Twitter account once we are able to consider this again. 


If you are interested in knowing more, please contact us:

Dr. Christina Potter (Ecolabelling Trial Lead): christina.potter@phc.ox.ac.uk