Our current food consumption choices have detrimental consequences on the environment. In particular, the consumption of meat products comes with high environmental costs (Godfray et al. 2018; Poore and Nemecek 2018; Springmann et al. 2018). Without substantial reductions in meat consumption, the Paris climate targets are difficult to achieve (Clark et al. 2020). Thus, encouraging individuals to reduce their meat consumption is a promising route to mitigating climate change, especially by lowering short-lived methane emissions that increase the risks of crossing climate tipping points in the near-term (Fesenfeld et al. 2020; Godfray et al. 2018; Poore and Nemecek 2018; Springmann et al. 2018). Yet, although the negative consequences of meat consumption are well understood, meat production and consumption still increase in many countries (FAO 2020).
However, transforming dietary patterns, especially shifting towards more plant-based diets, is not easy. There is a growing body of literature on the different internal and external factors enhancing or inhibiting sustainable food consumption behaviors. Studies have mainly highlighted the role of consumer nudging and information on the environmental and health impacts of excessive meat consumption as a lever for changing dietary patterns (Apostolidis and McLeay 2016, Fesenfeld et al. 2022; Hagmann, Siegrist, and Hartmann 2019; Kamm et al. 2015; Stubbs, Scott, and Duarte 2018; Lemken, Zühlsdorf, and Spiller 2021; van Loo, Hoefkens, and Verbeke 2017; Pohjolainen et al. 2016). Nudging and information techniques seek to steer people's behavior without mandating or forbidding options, such as providing default information on the climate and animal welfare impact of food products in the form of product labels.
However, there are very few real-world examples of retailers that provide climate- and sustainability-related food product labels on most of their food products. Consequently, there is a lack of field experimental evaluations of such labels, especially on the direct labeling effects on consumers' actual food behavior choices as well as potential feedback of such labels. We thus know little about how such labels affect consumer attitudes, knowledge, perceived behavioral control, social norms, behavioral intentions, and actual food behavior choices (Lemken, Zühlsdorf, and Spiller 2021). We also have little evidence on how such labels feed back into the public policymaking process by changing norms and public opinion about policies to transform the food system and reduce meat consumption (Fesenfeld et al., 2022).
Here, we conduct large-scale randomized field- and survey experiments with a representative sample of 2000 Swiss citizens. We collaborate with Migros, one of Switzerland's two largest food retailers, and evaluate their novel M-Check label. The M-Check label is a private labeling initiative that Migros launched in 2021. This label ranks their food products from 1 (worst type) to 5 (best type) stars in terms of animal welfare and CO2 emissions. The rankings were developed and verified in cooperation with external partners. The framing and conjoint experiments will be conducted in two waves with N = 1000 respondents shortly before the real-world information campaign (t1) and N = 1000 respondents shortly after and during the information campaign (t=2). As part of the framing experiment, the respondents will be randomly divided into either the control group getting no additional information or the treatment group getting both, a short information display that matches the information provided by the real-world campaign and a product comparison slide illustrating the M-Check label use. As part of the conjoint experiment, respondents are confronted with sets of randomly varied food policy package designs and choose between these differently designed policy packages.
As part of our two survey waves, we collect various self-stated consumer attitudes, knowledge, perceived behavioral control and norms, behavioral intentions as well as socio-demographic and further control variables. In addition, we receive actual and longitudinal shopping behavior data for those respondents of our survey that provided their consent. This data allows us to compare treatment effects for both stated and revealed preferences and behavioral choices.
In terms of our case selection, we choose Migros as a partner as it is the second-largest food retailer in Switzerland, with a market share of about 35 percent (Statista 2020). The Migros M-Check campaign is a unique case for this study due to the rather sizeable visibility of the labeling initiative for consumers in Switzerland and the potential impact of the label on actual consumer behaviors. Moreover, Migros is one of the first larger supermarket chains worldwide that introduced a climate and animal welfare label on most products. Similar labels are often just applied to a small range of products rather than most of the products offered in a supermarket. Thus, this setting offers a unique opportunity for a real-world experimental evaluation of the effectiveness of climate- and sustainability-related labels and their potential feedback effects on social norms and public opinion about food system transformation.
Building on the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1991) and related dual-processing theories of human decision making (Kahnemann 2011; van Loo, Hoefkens, and Verbeke 2017; Menzel 2013; Smith and DeCoster 2000), we expect that the M-Check label on the climate- and animal-welfare impact of different food products positively affects consumers' attitudes on buying more sustainable food products and consuming less meat. We also expect positive effects of the M-Check label on consumers' sustainability-related knowledge, their perceived social norms, and behavioral control to buy more sustainable food products and consume less meat. Further, we expect that the M-Check label changes peoples’ behavioral intentions and actual shopping behavior, i.e. leading treated consumers to buy more sustainable food products and less meat. Finally, we expect that such voluntary labels by food retailers positively affect citizens' perception of food retailers' sustainability impact and public support for different governmental policies to transform the food system and consume less meat.
Overall, the findings from this study will help to have a clearer picture of what types of sustainability-related labels and information are effective in influencing attitudes, norms, and behaviors. Moreover, the findings of this large-scale real-world experiment will reveal what kinds of food policies are supported, especially when someone has more information on the climate and animal welfare impacts of food consumption. The findings will also give more insight into the perception of private labeling initiatives initiated by economic actors and their influence on citizens' perceived need for more governmental regulation in the food sector. Lastly, the findings and the resulting policy implications can be helpful in future climate- and sustainability-related food labeling schemes.