Do you know how dining out impacts your carbon footprint? Most diners have no idea about the environmental effects of their meals. But carbon footprint labels could encourage people to pick more sustainable food choices when eating at restaurants, according to a study from the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg in Germany. The study found that climate labels influenced diners' decisions to eat sustainably, which in turn could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Published on PLOS Climate, psychologist Ann-Katrin Betz and her colleagues conducted an online menu study with 256 participants. The volunteers were asked to select one dish from nine hypothetical menus. Some example menu items include a beef dish with high emission costs, shawarma with medium emission costs, and falafel with low emission costs. The results revealed that the people presented with the emission labels were more likely to choose the low emissions dishes.

“If we want more climate-friendly restaurant visits, highlighting dish components on a menu can really be an important parameter because it communicates what is normal and recommended,” Betz said. “It may also be one of the easiest things restaurant owners can do."

Another key aspect of the study is how menu placement affects the dishes that guests order. When the researchers removed the carbon labels, 59 percent of participants selected the dish with the highest emissions attached to it compared to 12 percent choosing the low emission dish. However, when the low emissions option was placed first instead, 45 percent of participants chose the more sustainable option over 21 percent still chose the high-cost option.

"If a restaurant highlights the vegetable patty instead of the meat patty as a standard option in its burger menu, it communicates: 'Guests at this restaurant usually order the veggie burger.' In psychology, we call this a descriptive norm," Co-author Benedikt Seger said.

Overall, the study found that the climate labels impacted diners’ decisions to eat more sustainably. For the choices associated with the carbon labels, participants’ picks produced 13.5 percent lower emission costs on average. The study asserts that these climate labels could significantly curb individuals' carbon footprint, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting sustainable eating among large populations.

"Have the courage to include CO2 labels and different standard options in your menu,” Seger urged restaurant owners. “This way you can contribute to climate protection without having to change your offer fundamentally."

Consumers Care About Sustainability

The climate crisis is no secret. Consumers worldwide have started changing their dietary habits as connections between animal agriculture and environmental disaster become clearer. Many consumers consider themselves “climatarians” – defined as a person who chooses what to eat according to what is least harmful to the environment.”

Since the term was first coined in 2015, climatarians have grown to become more than 50 percent of the population in the US. Nearly 55 percent of consumers claim that they keep sustainability in mind when shopping at the grocery store, according to a recent study. But most people don’t realize what foods produce the most environmental cost, leading to the need for climate labels in restaurants and grocery stores.

Recently, the Danish government launched a program that will provide customers with information about the environmental costs of their purchases. The final proposal is slated to be finished by the end of 2022. The measure will help the Danish government reduce its climate footprint by 70 percent by 2030. The state-controlled climate-conscious labels will help inform shoppers of the environmental risks of animal agriculture.

The Impact of the Eating Plant-Based

Climate labels in both restaurants and retail stores will help promote sustainable, plant-based eating among consumers. While the heaviest burden rests on the animal agriculture giants, consumers can help fight climate change by introducing plant-based foods into their regular diets. By following a plant-based diet, the world can slash greenhouse gases by up to 61 percent. 

Even for shoppers and diners that feel that switching to a fully plant-based diet can be daunting, even adopting a partially sustainable vegan habit can have tremendous impacts. Eating plant-based twice a week for a year is equivalent to planting 14 billion trees, revealing how excessive land usage is to raise livestock for beef production.

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