Food packages with climate footprint

Urban Deli lunch boxes with labels. Photo: Astrid Nilsson / SEI.

Currently, the food supply chain accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and directly impacts all our ecosystems. According to a 2019 study published in The Lancet , shifting our diets is crucial to support environmental sustainability and nurture human health. While more labels to guide consumers’ food choices have emerged, the impact of these labels on people’s actual food choices remains uncertain. Carbon footprint labels have started to emerge on some products in recent years, adding to the existing plethora of information given to consumers. Many factors come in when you are standing in the store, making many fast decisions based on budget, time, convenience, habit, mood, values, advertising and the surrounding environment all influence consumer behavior. A lot of research has tried to evaluate the impact of labels on people’s choices, but few experiments are made in real life.

In collaboration with the Swedish food chain Urban Deli , the CANDIES research project is conducting in-store experiments to understand if and how consumers can be supported to make more sustainable food choices through information. More specifically, it is investigating how labeling ready-to-go lunches with their climate impact or ratio of locally produced ingredients can influence lunch shoppers to change their food choices.

“It's very interesting to hear how people react to and think about these labels just seconds after they've made their choice. These kinds of food choices are made very quickly, with a combination of emotions, habits, and rational thoughts that together contribute to the choice you make.”

— Astrid Nilsson, CANDIES project researcher

From November–December 2021, ready-to-go lunches were marked with a high, medium or low carbon footprint. Following that, new labels were used showing a high, medium, low ratio of locally produced. During this time, we conducted 160 short in-store interviews to understand how people reacted to these labels. 

So far, consumers seem quite positive about the labels. “It is positive to see this label, good that it is there. I wouldn’t have thought about it if it wouldn’t have been on it,” said one customer. However, the question is whether it has an impact on their final choice.

As another consumer put it, “I saw the label and saw that the lunch box I chose had medium [relative climate impact], which makes you want to take low one. But I was so keen on the prawns.” Thus, this consumer noted the label and hesitated, but still ended up not acting on it. Analysis of the interviews and sales data overall during this period is under way. 

CANDIES is now currently conducting a new phase of these in-store experiments, providing consumers with more information about the relationship between food and climate impact through different channels. A QR code is now added to the label, leading to a video where the ingredients are presented as well as the carbon footprint of the meal. In addition, more detailed information is available on Urban Deli’s newsletter, website and Instagram accounts.

Carbon footprint of the Urban Deli lunch boxes. Graphic: Urban Deli.

The purpose of this experiment is to see if more information through various channels can help impact people’s behavior by encouraging reflection on the environmental impact of food choices at other times during the day and not just over the few minutes that it takes to pick up their lunch box.

Read more about consumer behaviour in connection to food here.