Published 1 year ago.
About a 5 minute read.
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It’s true what they say: The way to someone’s heart is often through their stomach. A new WRI study suggests that carefully reframing menu language can successfully nudge diners toward more climate-friendly food options.
In what amounts to part consumer-behavior research and part foodservice-industry
commentary, a new World Resources Institute (WRI) study highlights the
potential positive impact of something as simple as the words we see on
Environmental Messages Promote Plant-Based Food Choices, which will be
released next week, highlights how language can steer diners away from
animal-based, carbon-intensive food options and shift their purchases towards
plant-based options ultimately better for the
In a virtual event held Tuesday to discuss the findings, WRI behavioral science
associate Stacy Blondin noted that the report’s research found 10 general
themes that were signified as “positive,” that restaurateurs could incorporate
into their menus to help sway diners. Among the best-performing themes were
related to “joining a movement,” “small changes leading to big impact,” ''taste
benefits,” “health & environment” and “a sustainable future.”
With 37 percent of all greenhouse gases coming from food and agriculture
production, according to a 2021 UN-backed
study, the purpose of WRI’s
research was to see where and how strategic communication could help reduce
emissions from one of the most potent sources while gradually educating
consumers about more planet-positive
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“It’s important to also build towards ‘flexitarians’,” Kaj Török — chief sustainability officer at Sweden's MAX
Burgers — noted during the event, “(to appeal)
to those who consume meat, but want to reduce that consumption overall.”
The report found that in terms of decision drivers, “health,” “heartiness” and
“taste/appeal” were among the top influencers in menu choices. What that
correlates to is that sensible and thoughtful language on the average restaurant
menu can sway consumers, as long it’s done in an approachable manner.
Jonathan Wise, co-founder of ad accountability organization Purpose
Disrupters, noted some key differences
between US and European standards when it comes to messaging.
“(We found) that when you call dishes ‘vegan,’ it turns off the mainstream
audience (in Europe),” he said. “It comes back as preachy and righteous.”
Interestingly, WRI research found the opposite to be true in the States, where
diners often link “vegan” with inclusiveness, among other language choices.
The next direction of this conversation is building language that makes sense
for emerging markets, especially those in the Global South.
“These menu directives don’t have the same impact in emerging markets like
Mexico, India and China,” said Mindy Hernandez, WRI’s Living
Lab for Equitable Climate Action
She said more behavioral research needs to be done in those markets, but that in
all cases “people make decisions based on the context and situation they find
“If you want massive change, you need a behavioral
(to help with that), but nudging also matters,” she added.
Her point underlined the common notion that there’s no one-size-fits-all
approach to building the right messaging to get consumers everywhere to reduce
and include more plant-based options in their dining choices.
“We have to make these choices simple and
for other people,” she said.
Wise added that drastic changes to the architecture of people’s lives thanks to
the pandemic are also changing the ways consumers think about messaging.
“People may perceive that they might be interested in making more (positive)
than they were (before the pandemic),” he said.
The event concluded with some thoughts to move the conversation forward, mostly
around how to translate these findings into real-world results.
and metrics aren’t always clear to consumers,” Blondin said, reiterating that
“nudging” consumers in a more environmentally positive direction can be more
Wise added that brand communication should also be considerate of the growing
sociopolitical element weaving its way into messaging
The direction should help people opt for more resource-efficient,
climate-friendly foods, and the language shouldn’t be “aggressive.”
In any case, the overarching sentiment was that adding environmentally positive
language in any capacity is better than no action at all as the climate crisis
Influencing wider adoption of plant-based diets is a continued goal of WRI,
which has been actively working on Shifting Diets and
increasing the sustainability of the food-service industry since 2016. In 2018,
it launched its Cool Food initiative and Cool Food
— which aims to help restaurants, hospitals, hotels, universities and cities tap
the latest behavioral science to cut emissions from the food they serve.
Strategies range from changing menu layouts and using appetizing language to
help consumers more often choose low-carbon options, to offering more
In January 2020, WRI launched a
highlighting 23 behavior-change strategies that companies across the foodservice
industry can use to encourage diners to choose more plant-rich
In October 2020, Panera Bread became the first restaurant chain to earn the
Cool Food Meals
which helps diners at Panera’s over 2,100 US locations identify more
climate-friendly meal choices. When Max Burgers, Aramark and Nestlé
adopted the Cool Food
in fall of 2021, it expanded the program to 130 Max Burger locations across
Scandinavia; as well as hundreds of retail food courts; convenience stores;
and corporate, hospital and university dining halls across the US.
Published Jan 26, 2022 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET
Geoff is a freelance journalist and copywriter focused on making the world a better place through compelling copy. He covers everything from apparel to travel while helping brands worldwide craft their messaging. In addition to Sustainable Brands, he's currently a contributor at Penta, AskMen.com, Field Mag and many others. You can check out more of his work at geoffnudelman.com.