Today’s Solutions: September 22, 2023

Most people will agree (regardless of their personal diets) that on the whole, the livestock and meat production industry is certainly not climate-friendly. The food industry alone accounts for more than a third of the world’s total annual planet-heating emissions, and a big chunk of that comes from raising cattle, chickens, and pigs for consumption.

Here at The Optimist Daily, we have been paying close attention to the emergence of plant-based diets in mainstream culture, and the growing climatariansim movement (in other words, making decisions about what food items to consume based on their impact on the environment). Clearly, many of us are willing to switch out meat-focused meals for plant-based ones at least some of the time, if not entirely. However, that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t benefit from an extra nudge in the right direction.

In fact, even though people seem receptive to the idea of swapping out meat more often, meat consumption in the US is still high, with the average American eating around 264lb of meat in 2020. Luckily, new research reveals that the messaging on restaurant menus can potentially shift human behavior in a significant way.

The non-profit organization World Resources Institute (WRI) conducted a multi-stage research experiment involving around 6,000 people in the US and their reactions to menu descriptions. Researchers analyzed responses to 10 different sustainability-themed messages that participants read on their menus before choosing between different meals (for instance a bean burrito or a beef one).

The results? People who read the following statement: “Each of us can make a positive difference for the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference,” chose a vegetarian dish 25 percent of the time. That’s more than double the rate of diners who didn’t have a message on their menu at all.

Other statements like “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,” and messages about the taste of the food and the need to protect the planet for future generations all yielded positive results in choosing vegetarian meals. This suggests how consumers’ decisions can be influenced by the messaging on restaurant menus.

“We know behavioral science is critical, it really moves the needle,” says Edwina Hughes, head of the “cool food pledge” initiative by WRI and the United Nations. “Themes of making a small change for a big impact and also around joining a movement really boosted the plant-based options.”

These menu “nudges” are similar to the increasingly common messaging in hotels that request that guests not demand their towels to be replaced every day in order to save water.

This idea can be expanded into how restaurants describe their plant-based dishes on the menu. Instead of using functional names like “vegetarian lasagna” or “meat-free sausages,” vegetarian options can be described with more enticing language that will appeal to more than just strict vegetarians and vegans, but anyone looking for a tasty meal.

Essentially, this story is a great reminder that we are all living on this planet and should therefore all be striving to help each other work towards a greener future, whether we’re just one individual, a restaurant, an entire industry, or policymakers in government.

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