image provided by Tiara Porter

A lot of mysterious work goes into getting food to our plates. Though many may stand in the store and check the prices and move on with our lives, when it comes to the environmental impact of our choices there is an incredible amount to consider. Between the transportation and production of our food – which requires water, land, fuel, fertilizers and more – there is a long list of potential environmental impacts. According to some research, the food industry accounts for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But given the mystery of where these emissions come from, some researchers are attempting to bridge the gap between environmental impacts and consumer awareness.

Here at UBCO, 4th year management student Tiara Porter is on the cutting edge of this work. After getting involved with Enactus UBCO and Project Equifood – a student-led program that hopes to simultaneously address food insecurity and food sustainability – Tiara got connected with Dr. Eric Li, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Management who specializes in consumer culture. Across all levels of research, funding and time requirements are often limiting factors – so the world of undergraduate research is usually constrained by the work already being done in a given research group. But Dr. Li’s support allowed Tiara to begin work on her own self-started research questions: How can consumers be better informed of the sustainability of their food through carbon labelling?

“Carbon labelling” is a fledgling program to highlight the carbon emissions of food. Carbon labels, which identify the carbon emissions created in the entire life cycle of a food product, are placed on different food products in the hope of helping consumers make more carbon-sensitive choices. For example, you could appraise two different milk products farmed in different countries and determine which one required more burnt carbon to get into your hands.

Through an extensive literature review, Tiara hoped to build a “holistic understanding” of the state of carbon labelling around the world and how the public might respond as it becomes more popular. Currently, these programs are still poorly known to consumers:

People are used to seeing organic and fair-trade labels but not a lot of people have heard of carbon labelling.

Examples of the labels are mostly confined to small experiments run by researchers. But by completing this work, Tiara hopes that the academic community can help bridge the knowledge gap with consumers, something that could potentially lead to a more sustainable food system.

But despite the limited nature of the programs, there are already several key takeaways about consumer behaviour. Younger consumers have been by and large more responsive to the labels than older ones – something that has ramifications for life here at UBCO. And confusing labels can be off putting for consumers; Tiara stresses that “simple and understandable” labels are key to their success. And interestingly, people have been more responsive to negative labels – by avoiding foods labelled for their high emissions – than to positive labels that highlight more sustainable options. But Tiara says, all of this is wrapped up in issues surrounding economics:

Environmental issues are important, but price is still the most important thing, and unfortunately the use of these labels does come with a price premium.

If carbon labelling is to expand, Tiara notes there are several key barriers to surmount, many of which fall on policy makers and institutions concerned with carbon emissions such governments hoping to meet their Paris Climate Accord goals. Notably, both producers and consumers are not necessarily always willing to spend more for sustainability. “It’s up to the government” Tiara says, given food producers won’t do this work on their own.

But beyond price, governments need to convince the public that sustainability is important by raising awareness, given that the public can be suspect of the interests of major companies: 

It’s hard to believe companies right now because there’s a lot of greenwashing that goes on, especially because sustainability is so important to so many people.

So, it is key that the labels come from trustworthy third parties such as the government or accredited non-governmental organizations. But at the end of it, there needs to be an incentive from the government for the whole program:

Government policy is really important to convince producers to implement the labelling, to educate consumers on why it’s important, to know why it's beneficial to know how many emissions are coming from food products, and to know your own carbon footprint.

But Tiara says carbon labelling also fits into a wider scheme of public awareness campaigns about sustainable food options, something that’s growing quickly at UBCO. With her Direct Studies and Honours Research, Tiara’s next step is investigating student knowledge about and the effectiveness of the Student Union’s Plant-Forward Monday’s program. Each Monday, across the university, different food providers are offering more plant-based options on their menus, such as 70-80% of the food at the Pritchard Dining Hall.

Tiara’s work, which includes a survey you can fill out by scanning the QR code provided, looking into how we can get people to choose more sustainable options. She says she is:

Hoping to understand at the university level what we can do to help people to make more sustainable choices and how we can encourage them to do so.

With her work, she is also hoping to create a base of knowledge to help the university tailor future sustainable food options for students. If you’re interested in sustainability and food, or just want to help make the university a better place, please fill out Tiara’s survey!

Tiara says the Plant-Forward Mondays program, and her research, is a way to help students notice the impacts of their actions. She notes it can be tough for students but there are positives to be taken from it all:

As students we don’t always have the time, have the budget, to be as sustainable as we want to, but it’s important to understand that we all have an impact and to be aware of the choices we make on a daily basis… Our society puts a lot of emphasis on over consumption, and changing that mindset is really hard, but it’s something we can all work on.

In her time here, Tiara says she’s seen the school begin to implement a range of sustainability programs, of which food services have been a major part. Given the wide range of problems and pessimism surrounding climate change and carbon emissions these days, Tiara’s outlook and impressive research are an inspiration:

Link to Survey for Tiara's Research here :

[The university] has a responsibility to continue this movement, we’re in a climate emergency so it’s important to continue the momentum… we can make a difference by being as sustainable as we can and changing the status quo.

Citations for discussed subject matter have been provided by Tiara Porter:

Green Numerical Design: Adapted from "University Students’ Purchase Intention and Willingness to Pay for Carbon-Labeled Food Products: A Purchase Decision-Making Experiment," by R, Zhao, and M, Yang, 2020, Sept 25, Environmental Research & Public Health

Traffic Light Design: Carbon Footprint Designs of the Study. Adapted from "Consumer Preferences for Different Designs of Carbon Footprint Labelling on Tomatoes in Germany—Does Design Matter?," by S, Meyerding, and A, Schaffman, 2019, March 15, Sustainability