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Enabling Climate-Smart Eating:
Lessons from Our Carbon-Labeling Journey

Food choices are motivated by everything from emotional triggers to individual dietary needs and social norms. But information is power. The carbon transparency movement is here, and we hope other brands will join us in hastening its spread. 

Imagine that your doctor told you to cut your sugar intake to 10 grams per day to avoid a health crisis. Making this change might be hard, but you’d have no shortage of tools to track your progress — food labels are everywhere nowadays and diet-tracking apps abound.

Now imagine you’re told to reduce your diet’s carbon footprint to 2.5 kilograms of greenhouse gases per day to avoid a planetary crisis. Where would you start? What labels or apps would you consult?

Most of us would have no clue how to act on such dietary guidance. But a small number of food companies are working to change that by adding carbon labels to their products. In the process, they’re fueling the Carbon Transparency movement and empowering customers to make climate-smart eating choices.

Just Salad is a 41-unit restaurant chain known for its Reusable Bowl program, which enables customers to reduce takeout container waste. In 2019, we started asking how our menu could help customers further lighten their environmental footprint. We wanted to do something more cutting-edge than simply exhort people to eat plant-based and local. Our attention soon turned to carbon labeling.

Here are some of the key decisions and challenges we encountered while developing Just Salad’s carbon label, how we launched it and what this 10-month journey has meant for our company.

Developing a carbon label

Our early research turned up some fascinating numbers: The daily greenhouse gas emissions from the US diet total 4.7 kilograms per person on average. These dietary emissions need to fall by half in the US and other developed countries to keep global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius. We also discovered that transportation accounts for less than 10 percent of a food’s greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, the specific food choices we make have a far bigger climate impact than how far our foods travel. 

The takeaway was clear: Our individual food choices have a large impact on climate change. And yet 51 percent of Americans feel “helpless” to do anything about it. 

Would a carbon footprint label alleviate that sense of helplessness, we wondered? Would our customers understand it? Would it nudge them toward lower-emissions choices? A small trove of research suggested that carbon labels do affect behavior — so we decided to try.

The first step was calculating our ingredients’ emissions. We enlisted a team of graduate students at NYU’s Stern School of Business for this task and utilized publicly available emissions data. We then developed an Excel-based calculator that tallied up the total carbon footprint of every menu item.

The next challenge was making this information comprehensible and intuitive. Our menu’s carbon footprint ranged from 0.10 kg CO2e to 1.44 kg CO2e. Should we present the carbon labels on a color scale, with green corresponding to low-emission items and red corresponding to high? Should we equate the numbers to light-bulb minutes, as some European carbon labeling schemes had done previously? 

Providing context and relieving cognitive load

Image credit: Just Salad

We opted for simplicity: Just Salad’s carbon label would consist of a globe icon plus the emissions figure, right next to the calorie count, on our online menu. 

To help customers put a figure like “0.1 kg CO2e” in context, we added a Carbon Footprint section under the item’s Nutrition Facts, where its GHG emissions were compared to that of a quarter-pound beef patty (3.75 kg CO2e). The beef patty became our reference food — a single benchmark against which all of our items were compared.

Getting to this point felt like a huge accomplishment. But would people take the time to study and compare carbon labels while ordering from us? Cognitive overload was a real possibility, and we addressed it through the strategy of curation: A new "Climatarian" menu would display our lowest-emissions menu options overall. Plus, for meat-eaters, we provided a “Conscientious Carnivore” section with our lowest-footprint items containing chicken.

We wanted the launch of our Climatarian menu and Carbon Labels to feel celebratory and inviting. On launch day, we reduced the price of all Climatarian menu items to reflect their carbon footprints. For example, the price of a Feisty Fiesta bowl was cut to $4.10, reflecting its carbon footprint of 0.41 kg CO2e. Customers took notice, and we saw double-digit sales increases versus the previous week.

Stakeholder relationships

Our 10-month carbon-labeling journey created rewarding relationships inside and outside of Just Salad that drove additional awareness and action. These included:

  • A conversation (still underway) with academic researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Tulane University about a formal study of our carbon labels and their effects on consumer behavior.

  • The creation of a Just Salad Sustainability Fellow program for graduate students. Our inaugural Fellows made invaluable contributions to our carbon-labeling project. 

  • Recurring conversations with our Sustainability Champions — a team of employees across our 41 stores who serve as resident experts on our sustainability initiatives. Together, we have explored the climate impacts of our food system through video conference lectures and online trainings. 

In closing

We know that carbon labels alone will not transform our unsustainable food system. Food choices are motivated by a host of factors including emotional triggers, individual dietary needs and social norms. But information is power, and it’s a meaningful first step. The carbon transparency movement is here, and we hope other brands will join us in hastening its spread. 

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