Spotlight

A climate-conscious diet

5 November 2021

Our global food production is responsible for 33 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions and, as such, contributes significantly to the climate crisis. Food processors, suppliers and consumers could contribute to slowing climate change by, for example, choosing locally produced, plant-based products. Wageningen researchers are studying how climate-conscious options can be made more attractive. For example, by promoting vegetarian dishes with plant-based proteins in restaurants or by consciously translating values into consumer behaviour.

Behavioural change is challenging. We may know something is healthy or environmentally friendly. Still, we do not always behave accordingly. ‘If we explain things better, people will change their behaviour, is a frequently made assumption in communication on sustainability’, says social psychologist Marleen Onwezen. ‘The cognitive message, however, is only partially absorbed. It is not just about knowing, but also about feeling and doing.’

“I study how we can ensure that sustainable choices are easy and give rewards such as status or a good feeling, and how the environment can support people in this respect.”

Marleen Onwezen, senior researcher consumer behaviour

Moreover, our behaviour related to the environment or sustainability only has an impact in the remote future. ‘Health goals are also achieved over a long time, but people do see results. If they exercise more or eat healthier, they feel better or lose weight. But sustainability goals remain abstract and remote. This makes it so complicated.’

Woman with child at vegetable stall on the market

Consumers can help slow down climate change by choosing more plant-based and local products.

Our sensitivity to standards that we consider normal often has an adverse effect. ‘In communication about climate change, the focus is often on what “we”, civilians, are doing wrong. This implicitly implies a standard of unsustainable behaviour being the norm. Additionally, people tend to overestimate themselves and quickly think they are doing better than others.’

More, more, more

Nevertheless, the need for sustainable behaviour is considerable. ‘The goals of the Glasgow Climate Summit are clear. If we really want to slow down global warming, we must make changes. Our food choices are one of the key ways to do so.’

Recent FAO (the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation) data show that food production, distribution and consumption is responsible for no less than 33 per cent of the emission of greenhouse gasses.

To reduce that emission, producers and consumers may opt for plant-based food more frequently. That means less meat and dairy on the menu and more vegetables and legumes. And, reducing consumption is also very important, Onwezen underscores. ‘We can restrict ourselves to what we really need. Now, it is always more, more, more.’ We could, for example, choose to drink tap water instead of high-sugar soda and fruit juices. The production, packaging and distribution of these drinks consume a lot of energy.

Alternative business models and customer relations

A transition such as this calls for an alternative approach to our society and economy. ‘A bread or oatmeal subscription at your local supplier has many advantages. Not just in terms of sustainability, but also by providing you with exactly what you need and the possibility to avoid temptation.’ Other consumers may be interested in this approach because of quality and flavour, health or convenience, Onwezen says. ‘Such an approach ensures a clear customer relationship, rather than a fleeting one. This offers interesting opportunities.’

Vegetarian dish

Eating less meat and dairy products and more vegetables and legumes is better for the environment.

New business models are needed, and companies should re-evaluate their production and packaging methods. ‘There are already counter-trends in many areas.’ For example, businesses that have decided to restrict themselves to sustainably produced, durable products. Or restaurants that aim for increased quality over quantity, and consumers who reconsider how many trousers they really need.’

Standardise

As Onwezen indicates, behavioural change for sustainability considerations is complicated. The supply of food sets the consumers’ standards. The range of meats available in the supermarket is an example. The shelves are filled with meat products. By comparison, the vegetarian and vegan selection is much more limited. ‘This implicitly says that buying meat is the standard. The meat substitutes are the exception to the rule and are thus not made attractive for consumers.’

That can be changed relatively easily. Restaurants with menu options for meat and fish often also have vegetarian alternatives, but these are not prominently shown. Onwezen and her colleagues collaborated with a restaurant in Wageningen in an experiment in which the standard daily menu was vegetarian. If customers wanted a meat menu, they were asked to indicate this. ‘In short, the options were the same, but the framing was different. The restaurant made the vegetarian choice the standard, and this worked. The majority of the customers ordered the vegetarian menu.’ When the meat menu was the standard, only a small portion of the guests opted for a vegetarian dish.

People having dinner

If a restaurant raises the vegetarian choice as the norm, many people choose the fish- and meat free menu.

There is currently another experiment underway in a Dutch zoo. ‘At the entrance to the cafeteria and on the menu, the guests are asked whether they consider animal welfare important. We are investigating whether this stimulates the demand for vegetarian dishes.’

Strategically ignorant

Onwezen feels that consumers and food-producing businesses all bear responsibility for sustainable choices. ‘We do not want to assign blame to any groups. There are still plenty of opportunities.’

Previous research conducted by Wageningen Economic Research on the question to what degree people’s values and behaviour are aligned shows that four groups may be distinguished. A group of approximately 30 per cent tries their best to adjust their behaviour, which can take different forms. On the other end of the spectrum is a group of some 15 per cent that is completely oblivious to the consequences of their behaviour.

In the centre is a group of approximately 30 per cent that is struggling. These people are aware of the consequences of their behaviour but have trouble changing it. Another group of approximately 25 per cent consciously chooses to look the other way. Onwezen: ‘They consider it all too complex and put on blinders. We call this “strategic ignorance”. This group is particularly interesting because they can still be reached. To them, standards are important, but they are not following them at this time.’

More research is needed to support these groups better, for example, on the question of how communication contributes to more sustainable behaviour. ‘You could focus on shifting norms and positive framing. I am eager to discuss this with scientists from different disciplines, including climate scientists.’

Behave in accordance with your values

‘If we offer options that contribute to status or a positive feeling, that respond to emotions and are aligned with people’s personal values, consumers will more readily choose sustainably’, says Onwezen. But it is important to think in small, concrete steps, she stresses.

Man buying lemons in supermarket

Consumers and food-producing businesses all bear responsibility for sustainable choices.

Consumers can, for example, choose locally produced food and take quality labels into account, for example, to select organically produced food. This may prove quite complicated, `which is often used as an excuse to do nothing. However, you can contribute simply by buying seasonal products. Or by consuming less meat and dairy.’

Methods from social sciences can help us to address our own values. ‘Even when we are on a quick grocery run with three whining children.’ At home on the couch, you may give the following some thought:

  • What values matter to me?
  • How can I, as a consumer, make small changes? Make this as concrete as possible, for example, by stating: ‘Next time I’m in the store, I will not select pork, but I will take something from the vegetarian range.’
  • What hurdles might you encounter, and how can you overcome them? If you do not know any good vegetarian recipes, you may search for some while at home.

This could help us act on our intentions. Onwezen: ‘Thus, you can ensure that your consumer self acts in accordance with the values you have as a person.’

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Marleen Onwezen

Marleen Onwezen · Senior researcher consumer behaviour

After completing her studies in social psychology at Tilburg University, Marleen Onwezen accepted a position as a researcher of consumer behaviour at Wageningen Economic Research in 2009. In 2014 she obtained her PhD at Wageningen University on the role of emotion in sustainable choices. Onwezen is currently an expertise leader in consumer behaviour and frequently acts as a coordinator or project manager. ‘People often claim that something is important to them but fail to act accordingly. This is human; I do the same. As a psychologist, I am interested in how we can understand and explain behaviour. I study how we can ensure that sustainable choices are easy choices and provide a reward such as status or a good feeling and that people remain motivated in a supportive environment.’

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