What unsustainable behavior needs to change:
Reducing our collective consumption of animal products is an important shift to help mitigate the climate crisis. Despite this, meals containing meat are often presented as the default, rather than more environmentally sustainable vegetarian or vegan options. This is a particularly critical issue in the US, where per capita meat consumption is among the highest in the world.
The Green Nudge:
In a US study, social researchers Alex Berke and Kent Larson investigated whether vegetarian and vegan labels deter consumers from choosing those options, through both field studies and an online experiment.
Using real event registration forms, they asked participants to select their meal preference for an upcoming event they were attending. When people clicked on the link to register, they were randomly redirected to select their meal preference out of two possible options, with one of the options labelled as either “vegan” or “vegetarian.” The forms were then used to conduct a between-subjects experiment comparing the two conditions.
The result: This study finds that the common practice of adding vegetarian and vegan labels effectively deters consumers from choosing these options; with the negative impact of labels shown to be statistically significant in each of the field studies. They also found that Vegans and Vegetarians were not more likely to choose meat options when labels were absent.
While potentially annoying for those who are vegetarian or vegan, removing these labels may provide an extremely simple and low-cost means for restaurants and other institutions to reduce their environmental impact –, with minimal changes to menus, and without impacting freedom of choice.
Vegans and vegetarians represent a distinct minority, comprising only about 5% of the population in the US. They are accustomed to investing extra effort to find suitable options on restaurant menus. However, in promoting plant-based dining, it might be more effective to focus on encouraging meat eaters to explore vegan and vegetarian dishes. Nonetheless, the use of labels can inadvertently trigger psychological biases, which makes individuals feel like they’re making a sacrifice or compromising on flavour. By emphasising the deliciousness of these dishes without spotlighting their vegan or vegetarian nature, we can entice a broader audience to make planet-friendly food choices.
Are you aware of any other nudges that promote planet-friendly diets? Feel free to get in touch: email@example.com
From Kate Napoli, Behavioural Science & Strategy Director at creative communications agency, alt/shift/, and guest lecturer for The University of Melbourne Masters of Applied Psychology. Her work applies behavioural science to create more effective creative communications, particularly across fields of sustainability, road safety and public health. An avid foodie, Kate is interested in the intersection of behavioural science and sustainable consumption choices.