by Christina Potter
This article was originally published on The Conversation
What’s for dinner tonight? If it’s a choice between beef or tofu, it might help to know there’s a 50-fold difference in greenhouse gas emissions between these products and a 200-fold difference in how much land is used to create them, according to recent research. The choices people make in supermarket aisles can affect how sustainable food systems are, but how do you know which to choose when you’re confronted with multiple options of the same product?
Ecolabels were invented in the late 1970s to help consumers tell the difference between a product with a large ecological footprint – produced and distributed in a way that releases lots of greenhouse gases or consumes a lot of natural habitat – and a product with a smaller one. Globally, there are thought to be more than 120 different types of ecolabels in use on food and drink products. If you live in the UK, you might recognise the Marine Stewardship Council logo, the Carbon Reduction label, or the Rainforest Alliance Certified badge.
These ecolabels are certainly well intentioned, but how effective are they in encouraging consumers to make green choices? In a new systematic review, we found that people given the option of a food or drink product with an ecolabel and one without are more likely to choose the former.
How ecolabels stack up
Our team of researchers reviewed 56 different studies which had tested how different ecolabels affected the choices of 42,768 shoppers. With so many ecolabels in circulation, there’s no consistent format across products, so we wanted to know how important the design and content of a label was. We classified labels according to their text and logo and their overall message, such as “organic”, “low-carbon” and “pesticide-free”. Then we analysed whether ecolabels were more or less effective depending on the characteristics of the shoppers themselves.
Regardless of an ecolabel’s message or format, we found that participants were more likely to choose the product with an ecolabel in 79% of experiments. We also found that ecolabels were more effective among women in 67% of studies, but found no clear difference in their effectiveness based on shopper income, age or education.
Most of the studies were hypothetical, in the sense that participants didn’t spend real money or get real food, but were asked to imagine they were shopping and to choose between products with different attributes. But in the 15 studies conducted in real-world settings, a majority (73%) found that ecolabelled products were more desirable than the alternatives.