What are you having for dinner? Recently published research shows that if you’re choosing between beef and tofu, there is a 50-fold increase in greenhouse gasses, as well as a 200-fold increase in the amount of land required to produce them. How people choose in the supermarket aisles affects how sustainable food systems work. But how can you make an informed decision when there are multiple choices of the same product available?
Ecolabels, which were first introduced in the late 1970s, help consumers distinguish between products with large environmental footprints (which release a lot of greenhouse gases and consume a lot of habitats) and those with smaller ones. There are more than 120 types of ecolabels that are used for food and beverage products worldwide. You may recognize the Marine Stewardship Council, the Carbon Reduction Label, or the Rainforest Alliance Certified badge if you are from the UK.
Rainforest Alliance certified fruit and vegetables are marked with the frog logo. K I Photography/Shutterstock
The ecolabels may be well-intentioned, but are they effective in encouraging consumers to make greener choices? In an updated systematic review, we found that when given the choice between a product with or without an ecolabel, people are more likely to choose the one with the ecolabel.
Compare the ecolabels
We then analyzed if ecolabels are more or less effective based on the characteristics and behavior of shoppers.
In 79% of our experiments, participants chose the product that had an ecolabel over those without. In 67% of the studies we conducted; ecolabels proved to be more effective with women. However, there was no difference in effectiveness between shopper income levels, age, or education.
The majority of the studies used hypothetical data, where participants were asked to choose products based on different attributes without spending real money. In 15 real-world studies, the majority (73%) of participants found eco-labeled products more appealing than their alternatives.
Can it make a difference to you?
We wanted to know how ecolabels affected consumer behavior. What we found suggests ecolabelling could promote more environmentally-conscious shopping. Although we didn’t examine whether the labels accurately represented each product’s impact on the environment, we did investigate.
While consumers tend to link organic food with sustainability, there’s some debate about whether organic farming is actually better for our planet than conventional farming. We don’t have any way of knowing for sure whether ecolabels are always associated with products that are more environmentally friendly.
Eco-labeling products have a number of benefits, but they are not always obvious. Andy Selinger/Alamy Stock Photo.
We would also like to learn more about the unintended effects of ecolabels. For example, if they encourage less healthy food and beverage options, a system that combines ecolabelling and nutritional information, or ecolabels for products that meet certain health standards could help.
Current labels do not capture the full environmental impact of a product from farm to table. Further research is needed to define the qualifications a product must meet in order to receive an ecolabel. It could also improve the credibility of these labels and increase public trust in them.
We can be comforted by the fact that a vast majority of studies have shown eco-labeled products to outperform those without any environmental guarantee. This could indicate a desire for more sustainable lifestyles, which businesses and regulators can now nurture.