The Brownie Experiment: An Analysis of Sustainable Labelling and Its Effect on Choice
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The literature suggests that in total between twenty and thirty percent of the environmental impact in the western world is due to food consumption. As such, food choices are an important consideration in reducing environmental impact. Regardless of geographic location or economic status, decisions about food impact our daily lives. Due to the increasing awareness for environmental issues, there is an ever-increasing market for sustainable food. The goal of this study was to explore the influence that food labeling could have on people's food choices in residence on a university campus. The aim was to simulate the choices that are made when comparing two products at the grocery store by baking batches of what we define as sustainable and conventional brownies and asking people to make a decision between the two. For the purposes of this project, sustainable food is defined as food that is organic, fair trade, and makes use of local ingredients. Our definition of conventional food is food that is non-organic, industrial-made with the use of pesticides, and does not use local ingredients. The brownies that were baked were sustainable ‘Brownie A’ and conventional ‘Brownie B’ that were virtually identical in size and appearance (Appendix A), and of no cost to the student participants. We received funding from Dalhousie Student Union Sustainability Office (DSUSO) to pay for the brownie ingredients and laminated labels. The only difference between the two brownies types was the labeling of the brownies as “Sustainable Brownie A” and “Conventional Brownie B”. 257 surveys were conducted over two nights at Howe Hall Residence at Dalhousie University. The anonymous survey had seven questions that asked participants to indicate which brownie they chose, rate possible reasons for choosing the brownie, the degree labels affected their choice and if they would pay more for the brownie if Brownie A cost more than Brownie B. Main results: • 65% of participants chose Brownie A and 35% chose Brownie B. • The levels of impact that the labels had on participants who chose Brownie A were evenly distributed over a range of no impact to great impact. Participants who chose Brownie B largely felt that labels had no impact on their choice. • Perceived environmental impact had little influence among the majority of participants that chose Brownie B, however it was highly influential for participants that chose Brownie A. • Of the participants that chose Brownie A, about half would have switched their choice if Brownie A cost more than Brownie B. The implications of our study are that labels do have some effect on people’s food choices. This supports the idea that food labeling is an important way to reduce the environmental impact of food. Our results could be useful in creating a standardized food labeling system for residences across campus. Our results could also be of interest to Rochelle Owen, Director of the Office of Sustainability, who is looking to improve sustainability on campus and among the student body.