Carbon Labeling Works According to New Study

For a growing number of companies, carbon labels are a way to encourage more environmentally friendly purchases, like getting you to pick a plant-based meat over actual beef. But does learning how much carbon you’re putting into the atmosphere really affect your shopping decisions? Well, it turns out it does, even for those who’d rather not know.

In a study recently published in the journal Food Policy, researchers at the University of Copenhagen and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences looked at how carbon labels on food influence consumer choice.

What the researchers discovered is cause for optimism. Although a third of study participants said they didn’t want to know more about their food, the researchers gave them that information anyway. “We recognize that this approach may annoy participants who were provided information against their will,” they write. Whether or not they were annoyed, however, the “information avoiders” still reduced their carbon footprint by a collective 12% after viewing climate labels, primarily by swapping their choice of beef for chicken.

Participants who actually wanted to know the climate impact of their food changed their decisions to an even greater degree. Those who said “yes” to seeing the climate labels collectively reduced their carbon footprint by 32% by making new food choices, such as picking pork, chicken, or the meat substitute over beef or the combination of beef and beans.

For now, of course, carbon labels aren’t mandatory and the products that have the biggest carbon footprints aren’t likely to cough up that information on their own. Governments need to take a more active role in requiring such labels, or social norms will need to evolve to the point that consumer pressure forces companies to provide them. Maybe, in the future, a food product’s carbon footprint will be as obvious as its price and calorie count.

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