Climate Change Needs Behavior Change

Organization Name: 
Better Buying Lab, World Resources Institute

Entry Overview

Encouraging consumers to purchase plant-based dishes is one way that food service providers can reduce the environmental impact of the food they sell. A low-cost and effective approach to achieving this goal is to change the language used to describe plant-based foods, for example, on menus. Our solution applied a rigorous research methodology to identify the key principles underlying language that is successful in encouraging consumers to select plant-based foods. We also worked directly with a multinational organization to trial on-site training to enable food service staff to generate tailored and effective names for the plant-based dishes on their menus. We are now working to scale our approach across the food industry to create the kind of mass consumer shift that is required to reduce food production pressures on forests, water systems and the climate.
General Information
First Name: 
Last Name: 
Organization type: 
  • Nonprofit
Email Address:
84 eccleston square, 44 Rylston Road
SW6 7HG London
United Kingdom
51° 29' 35.3616" N, 0° 8' 37.104" W
Sectors impacted: 
  • Food and agriculture
Community type: 
  • Urban
  • Suburban
  • Rural
Population impacted: 
>110,00 diners per day
Context Analysis
Describe the context in which you are operating: 
Shifting diets to include more plant-based foods can reduce pressures on forests, freshwater and the climate. One way to influence consumer choices is to change how foods is described. Research shows that language can have a powerful effect on food choice, yet most plant-based dishes are described in ways that are not appealing to people who normally eat meat. For example, research has shown that putting dishes in 'vegetarian' menu sections can reduce ordering by up to 50%, while making vegetable dishes sound more indulgent increases the numbers choosing them by 25%. Using more appealing language to describe plant-based dishes could, therefore, play a vital role in helping nudge people towards more sustainable diets. Our solution focused on food service outlets (e.g. restaurants) given the sheer volume of food and drink sales that occur in this context (e.g. $745.61 billion in the US in 2015), and its potential to elicit significant impact at scale.
Describe the technical solution you wanted the target audience to adopt: 
Ultimately, we are aiming for staff at food service outlets to use desirable language to describe the plant-based dishes on their menus. Through our online and field research we have identified the key principles underlying language that is successful in driving sales of plant-based foods. For example, food services providers should stop using language that highlights inferiority or exclusivity of these options (e.g. 'vegetarian', 'vegan' or 'meat-free') and instead employ language that simulates a positive eating experience (e.g. emphasizing flavor or romancing provenance). Our initial research has found that using the right principles for naming plant-based food can increase sales between 15-70 percent. To help companies apply these key principles we have developed a range of implementation solutions. These include training workshops, guidance documents and creative exercises.
Type of intervention implemented (category descriptions)
Select all that apply: 
  • Emotional appeals
  • Choice architecture
Describe your behavioral intervention: 
To first identify the key principles underlying language that is most successful at increasing sales of plant-based foods, we conducted a series of experiments. First, we ran consumer preference tests to rank alternative names for plant-based dishes, followed by a randomized controlled trial to determine the impact of the best performing of these names on dish selection in an online menu test. Second, we tested the most effective alternative language categories identified through this work on actual vegetarian dish sales at a chain of cafés in the UK. Next, taking key principles from our research, we partnered with a multinational organization to implement changes to language describing plant-based foods within staff cafeterias. This involved developing a creative workshop format, the aim of which was to enable local food service staff to generate their own dish names for plant-based items sold at their sites. Following feedback, we iterated training materials to improve acceptability and utility, and then disseminated them to sites around the world through a series of ‘train the trainer’ sessions. Trainers were instructed to lead their own language workshops and, subsequently, make changes to menus and signage. We are now working with a range of other businesses to scale these workshops across the industry. Additionally, we are also sharing our research findings with a broader audience through a series of open access publications.
As needed, please explain the type of intervention in more detail.: 
See above for further details.
Describe your implementation: 
Our initial research process allowed us to generate insight into the principles underlying what language works best to drive appeal of plant-based foods. We then used these principles to engage those directly responsible for making and selling plant-based foods through a series of creative naming workshops. Each workshop lasted approximately 90 minutes and was designed to build interest and understanding of the importance of plant-based foods. Sessions involved series of creative naming tasks that required members to think laterally about the positive attributes of the plant-based foods they create and serve. In asking team members to engage with the principles behind effective language, and to practice working together as a group to develop new and improved dish names, our workshop process ensured that better naming processes can becomes part of routine organizational practice. To create the workshops we employed an iterative process. We started by running a pilot workshop in London with 9 food team members. Following feedback, we shortened the workshop format and adapted our creative exercises. When we were confident that we had something capable of generating powerful new dish names, we set up a ‘train the trainer’ call with five global offices. Here, we ran through the presentation and held a live creative naming exercise. Attendees then used this presentation to lead further workshops with their teams, all reporting back new names and any associated uplift in plant-based food sales. Strong positive impact from this pilot gave the company the confidence to roll-out the naming workshop across all of its global sites.
External connections: 
In addition to the support of our industry partner in trialing and implementing our approach, we have also engaged a broader range of industry stakeholders in this work via our member network. Together, the food service providers and companies comprising this network serve 65 billion meals globally per year. In addition, we are working to engage a broader range of organization by actively disseminating our research findings. To date, we have written up our experimental methodology and results and anticipate that publication will attract an external readership in excess of 1,000 readers. In addition, we have also shared the findings of our further experimental work through an online blog, so far attracting 12,500 views. Finally, we have also presented the findings of both our research and implementation work to a wider, international audience of food service providers and innovators as part of a keynote speech at the 2018 Culinary Institute of America Menus of Change conference.
Who adopted the desired behaviors and to what degree?: 
Our online research studies recruited 2727 people and led to the largest increase in vegetarian dish selection of 140%. For our field experiment, 784,044 dishes were sold during the experiment, with each sale representing one costumer exposed to our intervention. The best performing language tested in this study led to a 76% increase in dish sales. During our subsequent implementation work, numerous staff attended creative workshops. Feedback from these sessions was positive, led to compelling new dish and was associated with other positive outcomes for the staff such as providing a fun opportunity to share expertise and improve group dynamics. The organization has since begun to roll out changes to the language describing plant-based foods across all 222 of their staff cafeterias, collectively serving 178,000+ meals each day. Initial post-implementation data suggest uplifts in sales of plant-based dishes reaching a maximum of 70%, varying by dish type as well as by site.
How did you impact natural resource use and greenhouse gas emissions?: 
Existing work published by our parent organization, World Resources Institute, has modelled greenhouse gas emission and land use reductions following dietary shifts away from meat. This work has considered a selection of different dietary scenarios and indicates that while a fully vegetarian diet does lead to the greatest reductions in environmental impact, significant benefits are also seen with less extensive dietary changes, such as reducing beef consumption only. To date, the vast majority of behavioral research focusing on plant-based food has explored ways to target different population groups to elicit increases in consumption. In order for us to conclude with any certainty the actual impact of these type of interventions on the environment, we now need further work to understand if language-based interventions do, in fact, lead to either total or partial replacement of meat dishes by plants, or whether these options are eaten in addition to one another.
What were some of the resulting co-benefits?: 
Changes to the language used to describe plant-based foods represents a low cost and easily scalable intervention. As such, applying this intervention has economic benefits to companies and food service providers who stand to increase sales of plant-based options without diminishing their customer base or directly restricting sales of meat products. Attempting to increase plant-based food consumption also has direct benefits to consumers who stand to increase their intake of dietary fiber, reduce saturated fat and calories and increase certain vitamins and minerals. These changes can benefit health if dietary shifts are maintained over time. We also anticipate that increased consumption of plant based-foods may expose food service consumers to new dishes not previously tried, with potential for a positive spillover effect on food consumption habits in other settings, such as at home or work.
Replication and Scale
This solution is a low-cost approach to large-scale behavior change. It is the responsibility of the food service operator to run creative workshops and to implement changes to menus or signage once the desired alternative language has been identified.
Return on investment: 
There are two main sets of costs associated with our solution. The first relates to research to identify principles that underlie the most effective language to describe plant-based foods. This involved costs of staff time to develop intervention content, materials, research methodology and to analyze data. However, as this work is now completed, no future costs are associated. The second set of costs relate to implementing our solution at scale. This includes staff-run creative workshops to generate new dish names, in addition to changes to menus and other site-based advertising. Here, costs are relatively minimal (e.g. < $1000) and may be absorbed into natural menu or advertising change cycles.
How could we successfully replicate this solution elsewhere?: 
Since completing our initial pilot implementation work,we have partnered with a number of other businesses, including a large U.S based cafe chain to rename soup dishes, leading to a double digit post-intervention increase in sales, as well as an international hotel chain and an international facilities management company. Collaborations with the latter two organizations are still in progress, with results expected in late 2018. Based on this experience, we have identified some key requirements for successful implementation ,such as identifying food service partners who are willing to collaborate and sales data. It is also necessary to identify appropriate plant-based dishes to test. We recommend that these be average sellers, with names that the organization believes could be improved.

Contest Partners

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Contest Sponsors

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
Humanize Institute