The food we eat accounts for a fifth of the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions in Sweden, conversely the same amount as is caused by the transport sector. Meanwhile, it is difficult for consumers and kitchen staff to make informed choices with respect to climate impact every day while shopping for dinner, writing menus or ordering at restaurants. To make is easier to choose greener alternatives, a group of scientists, a master’s student and the Student Union Restaurant at Chalmers have worked together on an ambitious project that combines emission calculations, graphic design, psychology and cooking.
The project was launched by Florentine Brunner’s Master’s thesis in Industrial Ecology at the department of Energy and Environment. Aided by her supervisor David Bryngelsson she investigated the level of emissions caused by the lunches served at the Student Union Restaurant – and designed a carbon label for the menu that illustrates the difference between lunch alternatives for the customers. In addition, she measured which courses the guests paying with their Student Union cards chose before compared to after the label was introduced.
“I’m interested in consumer behaviour and was interested to see if a carbon label would impact the guest’s lunch choices,” says Florentine Brunner.
Certain popular options
There is a plethora of factors that influence what we choose to eat: personal taste, old habits, allergies, health concerns, hunger, what we ate yesterday and so on. That being said, the statistics that Florentine Brunner analysed as part of her master’s thesis show that there are types of food that get more people to go for the greener alternatives.
“Overall, fast food-types of dishes are very popular – hamburgers, tacos and such – regardless of if they include meat, fish or are vegetarian. If you look only at the veggie alternatives, Asian dishes stand out as especially well liked: Thai food, noodle dishes of different varieties and Indian dishes are always a hit,” says Florentine Brunner.
The carbon label for lunches had been received positively by guests of the restaurant and by the kitchen staff. The guests have become more prone to choose greener alternatives. As for the Student Union Restaurant, they have opted to continue using the carbon label and also taken the results of the calculations to heart, making the menus more environmentally friendly. They have, for example, stopped purchasing beef from parts of the world were emissions from the cattle industry are of particularly large scale.
“The carbon label has inspired us to make certain changes in regard to purchasing ingredients. As of now, we are observing how our guests react to the label to get indications on how to plan our menus in the future. We hope to be able to present some statistics soon showing our guests how their choices have affected carbon emissions,” says Marcus Danielsson, assistant CEO of Chalmers Conference and Restaurant.
Emissions lowered by a fourth
How much of the impact that, in the end, can be attributed to the customers’ or the restaurant’s changed behaviour respectively is hard to break down, but the point still stands: the visualisation offered by the carbon label has made possible the gathered result of a 25 percent drop in emissions caused by the food served at the Student Union Restaurant.
David Bryngelsson, post doc at the Department of Energy and Environment, is the one responsible for the research data at the core of the new carbon label. Together with a team of fellow researchers he has devised the program which calculates the amount of greenhouse gas emissions accumulated per lunch portion.
“The label shows us qualities in the food that otherwise remain invisible to the lunch guests. Additionally, the climate impact of the food is highlighted – but not solely as something problematic. The guests can also see which alternatives are the least harmful to our climate. It’s easy to make a positive choice,” says David Bryngelsson.
David Bryngelsson sees great potential in the emission calculation method and the carbon label outside of Chalmers as well. Together with colleagues he’s taking the concept further.
“We’ve recently founded the company CarbonCloud to be able to target a wider range of parties within the restaurant sector by providing our program as a web based service. Several lunch restaurants on Chalmers’ two campuses have already signed up, and we’re bringing a group of new restaurants in Uppsala into the fold,” says David Bryngelsson.
Calculations based on peer reviewed data
An additional paper based on the measurement results fom the Student Union Restaurant is expected to be ready for publication in 2017.
Text and photo: Carolina Svensson