In the first week of March, The College of the Environment (COE) Think Tank, in collaboration with Bon Appétit, posted eco-labels on the sandwiches sold in Pi Café, Usdan Cafe, and Weshop to inform students of the impact their eating habits have on the environment. The COE Think Tank created four different labels documenting the environmental effect of processing and transporting the sandwiches. Each sandwich received a label based on its contents; labels were created for sandwiches containing beef or lamb, ham, turkey or chicken, and vegan with no vegan cheese.
“Initially one of our conversations was, ‘Do we want to be very specific?’” said COE Think Tank Fellow and Professor of Environmental Studies; Philosophy; and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Lori Gruen. “And we realized that actually trying to be very specific was probably more error prone than being more general and labeling things highest, high, medium, and low.”
The COE Think Tank operates with three student members and four faculty fellows, including Gruen and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Government, and East Asian Studies Mary Alice Haddad. They meet to discuss ecological issues on campus and seek to decrease the University’s toll on the environment. The eco-label idea was conceived at the beginning of the current semester.
“We talk a lot about big issues, so this kind of showed up as a possibility of, ‘What are the social cues that help change behavior?’” Haddad said. “[We thought] maybe we could do something that would one, do some research about what kind of things influence people’s behavior, and two, maybe influence their behavior.”
The Think Tank looked at data from multiple sources before choosing what pieces of information to include on the labels.
“We did spend quite a number of weeks actually doing research and talking about data and talking about the most informative graph, how to communicate this information, and trying to be as empirically accurate as we could be in this broad scheme of four labels and four sandwiches,” Gruen said.
Think Tank members worked in conjunction with Bon Appétit to formulate the idea for the labels and carry out the experiment.
“I just reached out to [Bon Appétit] and proposed this project, and we tried to figure out what they would be willing and capable of doing on their end in terms of the research aspects of the project that we need and also the logistical concerns as well,” said COE Think Tank member Evan Weber ’13. “They were extremely accommodating—above and beyond, I would say.”
The experiment was planned in three one-week parts. The Think Tank monitored sandwich sales for a week before the labels were put into use as a baseline. Then, labels were used for one week, and Think Tank members collected data about the choices that students made when the labels were on the sandwiches. Lastly, they observed sandwich sales for a week after the labels were used.
“When we take the eco-labels away and say, ‘Was there any kind of long-term [effect], or does everybody just bounce right back?’” Haddad said. “Hopefully we can get data from a longer period of time and we can sort of see whether this is a little minor blip or whether there are any long-term effects.”
Bon Appétit helped collect data for the Think Tank by monitoring which types of sandwiches sold at Pi Café, Usdan Café, and Weshop over the three-week span.
“Bon Appétit actually tracks sales of different things based on your ID card, and so they know what sandwiches different people bought,” said Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow Helen Poulos. “So this will be anonymous. They don’t give us your ID numbers or anything like that, but they track those sales so we can have a record of before, during, and after the labels.”
Whether or not the labels affected sales is not yet known. The University is one of the first educational institutions to undertake such a project.
“There are a lot of labels on a bigger scale but not in a university setting this way, not testing it in the way we did here,” Haddad said.
The Think Tank looked at the broader studies for background information before designing its experiment.
“There have been a lot of eco-labels all over the world, so we had to do a fair amount of research to see what those labels look like, what the metrics were that they were measuring the labels with,” Haddad said.
The labels haven’t reappeared on sandwiches since the experiment ended, but Think Tank members say that they might return in the future.
“Even if the data isn’t that compelling, the way I look at it is that if it’s not that much of a hassle and it’s something that Bon Appétit would be willing to do, then really it’s just putting more information out in the world, which I think is almost always a good thing,” Weber said. “And the more that people see this information and know how their food choices have impacts beyond themselves, I think that can only be a good thing.”