“Few everyday decisions are more important to our health—or the health of our planet—than choosing what we eat.”
Natural Resources Defense Council, International Environmental Advocacy Group
The overconsumption of food contributes greatly to health problems that affect a large portion of society while also straining earth’s natural resources. Food production and consumption alone contribute to approximately 20%–30% of Western greenhouse gases. Attempts by policy makers to encourage food-related sustainable practices often focus more on the role of producers and less on the role of consumers, even though a growing number of consumers are concerned about the sustainability of the products they consume. Still, consumers often fail to perceive any immediate, personal benefits from consuming sustainably; instead, they consider benefits only for future society as a whole.
Recent research published in Journal of Public Policy & Marketing by Adam Farmer, Michael Breazeale, Jennifer L. Stevens, and Stacie F. Waites, however, provides evidence that food promoted as sustainable can indeed produce individual consumer benefits through reduced consumption. They found that when consumers are aware that they are eating sustainably produced foods, they actually consume less. So, the 2013 move by fast-food giant McDonald’s to ensure that 100% of its famous Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are made with certified sustainably sourced Alaskan Pollock could mean that consumers are actually eating less. By adopting the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue eco-label, McDonald’s and its consumers are helping protect oceans for future generations and enhancing their overall health by potentially eating less as well.
Results from a series of three studies testing actual consumption in a laboratory setting provide evidence that consumption decreases when consumers are eating or drinking a sustainable product. Even though taste perceptions were equivalent for traditional and sustainable food products, people consumed less of the food product when it was simply presented as sustainable. For example, when given the same kettle-cooked potato chips, participants in the experiment ate less when they were given information about the sustainability of the snack instead of about its quality. These findings suggest that sustainable foods may offer immediate health benefits to consumers because excessive indulgence may be curbed by a diet focused on sustainable foods.
These findings differ from prior research on other positive food labels (e.g., fair trade, organic), which suggests that consumers are led to believe that food products are healthier or lower-calorie and, consequently, overcompensate by consuming more of these products. Foods promoted as sustainable have a unique impact, encouraging people to consume less instead of more. The difference may be that consumers associate sustainability with the future, not health.
When presented with food products promoted as sustainable, the researchers find that people are led to care more about the needs and well-being of society, which naturally focuses on the future. Thus, by preserving resources for future generations, consumption decreases. At the same time, the individual consumer personally benefits by eating less, which means a decrease in the damaging health effects of overconsumption (and hey, their pants might even fit a bit better). So if a consumer wishes to get lean, it pays to eat green.
Encouragingly, consumers have more choices than ever when it comes to purchasing sustainable food products. At the the grocery store, consumers can find a number of brands founded on sustainable principles and practices, such as Clif Bar, an energy bar company committed to making food products with sustainably sourced ingredients while striving for zero waste at its headquarters and supply chain facilities. Other established food leaders are adopting sustainable practices as well. For example, Nestlé Global, one of the largest food companies in the world, is focusing efforts on reducing water use by utilizing alternative water sources (e.g., rainwater) and training its suppliers and farmers on how to do the same. Other iconic companies are joining the movement: Coca-Cola recently enacted a Sustainability Action Plan focused on improving energy efficiencies and increasing internal recycling.
The researchers suggest that marketers and public policy makers should work together to encourage healthier consumption behaviors by promoting a food’s sustainability. Companies should clearly highlight the sustainability of their food and beverage products. For example, eco-labeling of sustainable products is currently being done successfully in Europe to foster “green” consumer behavior. More prominent promotion of a product’s sustainability can help reduce people’s food consumption and yields two primary benefits. First, reducing overconsumption works to preserve the earth’s resources for future generations. Second, it yields immediate health benefits to the consumer—smaller numbers on the scale. A healthier planet, then, equals a healthier you!