Changes to menu messaging can increase sales of climate-friendly food

Susan S. Johnson

Originally published on World Resources Institute.

Food production accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, with animal-based foods contributing double the amount of emissions to plant-based foods. Shifting consumer demand away from animal-based foods toward more plant-based alternatives is critical for reducing food-related climate change impacts, as well as resource use and biodiversity loss. New research suggests that making simple changes to messaging on restaurant menus may help consumers make this shift.

A simple behavioral science solution

Behavioral science has begun to explore strategies to encourage and empower consumers to make more sustainable dietary choices through a variety of behavioral economics-based “nudge” interventions. While much research has been done on sustainability labels, symbols and icons in recent years, relatively little attention has been paid to descriptive consumer messaging presented at the point of purchase. WRI’s previous research on the use of language in menus found that the words used can have a big impact, and in general messaging is arguably much easier for restaurants and food businesses to implement than an environmental label.

To identify if climate messaging has an impact on consumer choices — and if so, which type of messaging works best — WRI tested 10 different sustainability messages with more than 6,000 study participants in the U.S. The participants were asked which restaurant menu item they would choose in a simulated online ordering scenario. Each of the 10 sustainability-focused messages communicated a unique (combination of) benefit(s) to consumers — ranging from taste/flavor to environmental impact to health/performance to generosity/altruism. Participants were asked to select one dish from each of two menus (one lunch and one dinner) that included six meat-based and two plant-based options:

Messages viewed by study participants on a hypothetical restaurant menu when selecting an entree.

Message Theme

Menu Message

Small changes, big impact

 

Each of us can make a positive difference to the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference.

Joining a movement

 

90% of Americans are making the change to eat less meat. Join this growing movement and choose plant-based dishes that have less impact on the climate and are kinder to the planet.

Health and environment

You will be surprised how much positive impact plant-based food can have on both the planet and your health. Choose plant-based dishes to lower your carbon footprint and improve nutrition. It’s about goodness for you and the planet.

Taste benefits

 

Plant-based dishes are stacked with fresh vegetables and flavorful herbs and spices, making them a delicious meal that is also kinder to the climate than meat-based dishes. Savor food that saves the Planet.

A sustainable future

Choosing plant-based food is the best way to feed a growing population while protecting our planet’s climate for generations to come. A greener future for our children starts on your plate.

 

Compared to study participants who viewed a menu without a message, those who viewed the same menu with a sustainability message were more likely to select lower-carbon vegetarian meals. In fact, two of the messages (“small changes, big impact” and “joining a movement”) roughly doubled the percentage of vegetarian dishes that participants ordered.

percentage of vegetarian dishes selected in response to five different messages graph

Moreover, they were more likely to order a vegetarian dish the next time they ate out.

While this was a simulated event, the messages tested in this study are examples of the types of messages that could be adapted and tailored to a wide variety of real-world retail and food service contexts. Adding descriptive messages communicating the diverse benefits of plant-based food choices is a flexible and low-cost intervention that requires minimal time investment, and is, therefore, a scalable approach to behavior change.

Here’s how to try language that demonstrates “small change, big impact”:

breaking down the nudge

Here’s how to try language that demonstrates “joining a movement”:

breaking down the nudge 2

Updating messaging is a simple solution for food businesses

Real-world testing will be important, but these study results suggest that nudging consumers via climate messaging in the context where they make diet-related decisions is a promising strategy for encouraging more sustainable dietary choices.

In particular, messages communicating the environmental trade-offs between meat- and plant-based options in conceptual terms (e.g., energy needed to charge a phone) or social trends in plant-based menu uptake (e.g., percentage of people who choose vegetarian options) appear to be particularly effective in influencing consumers’ behavior.

While this study only tested one of each of these two top-performing types of messages from an initial pilot study, it’s reasonable to expect that variations on either theme would have a comparable impact. With little time to waste when it comes to nudging consumers toward more plant-based food choices, there’s no time like the present for food providers and retailers to give this strategy a go.

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