Published 3 years ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Just Salad
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
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.
Join us for a transformational experience at SB Brand-Led Culture Change — May 8-10 in Minneapolis. This event brings together hundreds of brand leaders eager to delve into radical lifestyle shifts and sustainable consumer behavior change at scale. The trends driving cultural acceleration are already underway, and you can be at the forefront of this transformative movement.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Our 10-month carbon-labeling journey created rewarding relationships inside and
outside of Just Salad that drove additional awareness and action. These
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
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.
We know that carbon labels alone will not transform our unsustainable food
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.
Published Sep 22, 2020 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST