Everyday Life

How nudging could help us reduce food related pollution

A recent study(1) discovered that household consumption accounts for around 60% of the total  greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The majority of these emissions comes from housing, transportation and food. Within these categories there’s a lot of variation. For example, air travel has a totally different impact if it is compared with train travel, and eating a salad is not the same thing as eating a steak. The way in which we produce food today has a terrible effect on environment. Considering all the GHG emissions, 14.5% of them are caused by the livestock sectors, while the impact of global food consumption in 2010 was estimated at 1.5 metric tons of GHG emissions per capita(2). In order to meet the target established by the Paris agreement and by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it will be very important to support more climate-friendly policies, alongside other types of intervention. 

There are two possible ways to reduce the total GHG emissions produced by food consumption: waste reduction and consumption shifting. Here the focus will be on the latter: we will analyze different policies and their effects on consumer’s behavior. 

In order to obtain the desirable shifting to an eco-friendlier diet it’s important to jointly promote sustainable food and discourage foods with a high environmental impact. We will briefly summarize the main result obtained thanks to nudging policies which try to have an impact on how an economic agent makes a decision without prohibiting any option(3)

This happens through an alteration of the choice architecture, which means modifying different aspects of the complex environment where the individual makes their food purchase decisions.  

Most of these policies, and the studies related to them, try to change the foods that people buy at the grocery store, but there are also interesting amounts of studies related to the choices made at restaurants and in the canteens.

Descriptive Labelling

Consumer interest in reading labels has increased over recent years(4). Labels can grab attention, but they also have another very important effect: they evoke emotional responses. When people buy a product labelled as organic, they experience gratification because they think  with good reason, that they are doing something helpful for the environment(5). This approach could be very  effective;  howevera study shows that the labels are useful because they “remind” people who are already environmentally friendly that they should do something for the planet. In fact, there is evidence that the effects of the labels on consumer depends heavily on their predisposition to sustainability(6).

Evaluating Labelling 

Evaluative labels use simple systems to help the consumer ranking foods differently based on their sustainability. This label could for example be based on stars or on a traffic light system. A very interesting study(7) discovered that, in order to increase the adoption of sustainable foods, it’s essential that these foods are also perceived as “healthy”.

Visibility enhancements

The position of the product on the shelves really influences the consumer’s choice, and a study(8) has shown the impact of visibility enhancements. The researchers have changed the menu order and increased the visibility of vegetarian meals in a university canteen for nine months. These interventions  have not only increased the sales of vegetarian meals by 6% during the nine months but they have also had a long-term impact. When the original order was restored, the sales of vegetarian dishes were 4% higher than before.

Size enhancements 

A lot of studies focus their attention on size enhancements to understand whether they are able to reduce consumption. An experiment(9) demonstrated that if  a small portion of meat is added next to the bigger default portions, customers are more likely to buy the smaller dish. During the intervention period this policy resulted in a 13% reduction in overall meat consumption. 

The research and experiments have not only shown how nudges could have a powerful impact on decision making as well as on our environmental impact but have also given us the tools to move food consumption decisions towards more sustainable products. There are still two important considerations that must be made. The first is related with a very common result in the literature; nudges could have a significant impact, but there must be a personal predisposition towards sustainable consumption, and here education plays a major role. The second is related with the research methodology. All these studies were conducted in western and highly developed societies and we don’t know yet how different cultures would react to the same nudge. It’s important to understand how to reduce meat consumption in western countries since today the people living in these areas have the most meat-based diets in the world, but it is possible that with the growth of the emerging economies that this will change.


  • Ivanova, D., Stadler, K., Steen-Olsen, K., Wood, R., Vita, G., Tukker, A., Hertwich, E.G., (2016). Environmental impact assessment of household consumption. J. Ind. Ecol. 20, 526– 536.
  • Girod B, van Vuuren DP & Hertwich EG (2014) Climate policy through changing consumption choices: options and obstacles for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Thaler RH (2018) From cashews to nudges: the evolution of behavioral economics. Am Econ Rev 108, 1265–1287.
  • Costanigro M, Kroll S, Thilmany D et al. (2014) Is it lovefor local/organic or hate for conventional? Asymmetric effects of information and taste on label preferences in an experimental auction. Food Qual Prefer 31, 94–105.
  • Lee H & Yun Z (2015) Consumers’ perceptions of organic food attributes and cognitive and affective attitudes as determinants of their purchase intentions toward organic food. Food Qual Prefer 39, 259–267.
  • Van Loo EJ, Caputo V, Nayga RM et al. (2015) Sustainability labels on coffee: consumer preferences, willingness-to-pay and visual attention to attributes. Ecol Econ 118, 215–225. 
  • Cho Y-N & Baskin E (2018) It’s a match when green meets healthy in sustainability labeling. J Bus Res 86, 119–129.
  • Kurz V (2018) Nudging to reduce meat consumption: immediate and persistent effects of an intervention at a university restaurant. J Environ Econ Manage 90, 317–341.
  • Vandenbroele J, Slabbinck H, Van Kerckhove A et al. (2018) Curbing portion size effects by adding smaller portions at the point of purchase. Food Qual Prefer 64, 82–87.

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