Would Energy Labeling on Food Products Be Effective?

March 21, 2014

By Shajuti Hossain

I recently ran a survey with 165 participants to test perceptions on energy usage by various food production processes and appliances. I found that people generally underestimated energy usage for food production a bit more than they underestimated carbon emissions, while the underestimation of energy usage and carbon emissions from appliances looked more similar. Next, I will start another survey through which I’ll look at how different presentations of energy usage information on food products impact consumers’ buying decisions.

In the Journal of Consumer Policy, Grankvist et al. published a study entitled, “The Impact of Environmental Labelling on Consumer Preferences: Negative vs. Positive Labels.” They ran a study with 40 participants from Goteburg University in Sweden to test two hypotheses related to the efficacy of negative and positive labels. Negative labels show how harmful products are for the environment, while positive labels show how beneficial they are. One hypothesis was that negative and positive labels would both strongly influence the decisions of those who already had a strong environmental conscious. The other was that negative labels would be more convincing than positive labels for those with an intermediate environmental conscious. Participants were split into 2 groups: the control group was asked to choose between products (food, soaps, etc.) with no labels and products with neutral labels, while the other group had to choose between products with no labels and products with positive labels or negative labels. They found both of their hypothesis to be true. The authors suggest a three-level label system in which the most environmentally friendly products will have green labels, the intermediate products will have yellow labels, and the most harmful product will have red labels.

I think that these findings make sense because negative information about products seem to deter more customers than positive information about products attract, because negative information is more memorable and is more often a topic of discussion. Not only that, but negative labels help customers understand the potential losses of buying the harmful product, while positive information shows them that the product could have no net gain or loss, which isn’t as threatening. I would like to see which types of negative information is most effective. For instance, will information on high energy usage or information on high carbon emissions from producing certain food product deter customers the most?