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Rasha Rehman headshot

Can Behavioral Science Encourage Plant-Based Food Choices?

By Rasha Rehman

Restaurant owners and food organizations can leverage behavioral science to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Such a shift is crucial: Food-related GHG emissions comprise 37 percent of annual global emissions, and animal-based foods contribute twice as much compared to plant-based foods. The results of a working paper released by the World Resources Institute reveal that behavioral science can encourage and persuade consumers toward making sustainable nutritious choices.

How to boost the prospects for plant-based restaurant dishes

The paper's authors define behavioral science in this study as "nudges," or descriptive messages that are presented to consumers when making a purchase. In the online survey, 10 different sustainability messages were added to restaurant menus, and this resulted in an increase in the percentage of plant-based meals chosen.

"When it comes to diet and foods, what we know is that nudges work really well," Edwin Hughes, head of Cool Food at the World Resources Institute, told TriplePundit. Cool Food is an initiative within the WRI’s food programs. "Little persuasions or even positioning, and language can make a big difference to how people make choices,” added Hughes.

What is the motivation for making sustainable food choices?

The study’s descriptive messages were categorized into multiple themes such as health and environment, altruistic choices, a more sustainable future, and connecting with nature. Hughes points to two types of motivations or themes that were conspicuous: "small changes, big impact," and the idea of social norms concepts. The idea of small changes, big impact illustrates that people need to feel that there is a role to play in the current climate crisis. “Sometimes it feels very overwhelming and it feels like nothing an individual can do can make any difference, [so] why bother almost," Hughes explained. “If you equip someone with the kind of clarity of what a different choice might equate to, they are encouraged, they are emboldened, and they want to make a different choice."

People want to be a part of a movement, Hughes continued. And, messages centered around collective action or community can serve as motivation to act. One of the messages tested in the study illustrates this idea: “90 percent of Americans are making the change to eat less meat. Join this growing movement and choose plant-based dishes that have less impact on the climate and are kinder to the planet."

"I don't think anyone wants to feel like they are the only one making the effort," Hughes continued. "When you then get something — a message that says 'you’re not the only one, there's a lot of other people who want to do this too' — that seems to be encouraging people then to make a different choice."

Descriptive messages prove to be working in nudging consumers toward sustainable choices. But getting these messages out there isn’t so easy. Before actualizing behavioral science tactics, restaurants and food organizations have many factors to consider.

Balancing multiple priorities and industry competition

Implementing descriptive messages in food menus requires the balancing of priorities for restaurants and foodservice organizations. For example, restaurant owners are already managing changing demographics, the implementation of technology and increasing regulations. These industry professionals also often lack the space to display descriptive messages in the first place, Hughes said. 

Still, there is little preventing restaurants and foodservice organizers from including these messages except for business hesitation, she explained. This apprehension is rooted in the competition of the food industry. “[Restaurants and foodservice organizers] want to make sure that they make these foods look really appealing and sound amazing, and sometimes they don’t have a lot of room to do anything else,” Hughes told us.

With competition and multiple priorities, there’s a wide range of measures that need to be put in place to drive the desired consumer behavior, which is to choose plant-based meals. In addition to descriptive messages, other measures such as labelling and climate messaging, as well as promotion and rewards programs, are beneficial, Hughes said.

Behavioral science will be an important tool to reach net zero as studies show that consumers are often unaware of how their food choices affect the environment. While the paper points to plausible solutions, restaurants and foodservice organizations are in a unique position to use this information accordingly. This research is the beginning of next steps in extensively shifting consumer demand toward sustainable food choices, an important shift to meet climate targets.

Image credit: Roman Odintsov via Pexels

Rasha Rehman headshot

Rasha is a freelance journalist with experience in external communications and publicity. She is a Ryerson School of Journalism graduate and has worked on various media and communication campaigns in film, home development and the nonprofit sector. Rasha is passionate about storytelling for impact, whether she focuses on social enterprise, transforming our food system or making the business world more inclusive.

Read more stories by Rasha Rehman