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Parsing Panera's plan to nudge consumers toward low-carbon meals

The restaurant chain is designating some menu items with the “Cool Food” badge, which designates choices with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Panera Bread location

Something changed recently in America’s fast-casual restaurants. It involved only a single company, but it could herald the start of a fundamental shift in the choices that diners make.

I’ll get to what happened in a minute, but first take a step back and consider the information available when you buy food. At the grocery store, you’re bombarded with labels: organic and its new extension, regenerative organic; various competing fair trade standards; certifications relating to animal health and so on. Notice that these widely used labels tell you nothing about the climate change impact of your choices.

If you’re eating out, you might find calorie information on menus and, typically at more boutique restaurants, notes on where ingredients were sourced from. Again, you’re unlikely to see anything relating to climate.

This matters, because the greenhouse gas emissions generated by different kinds of food vary widely. Here’s a useful summary, courtesy of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan:

food GHG

The reluctance of brands to use climate labels may be partly because it isn’t clear what consumers would do with emissions information. In 2007, for instance, PepsiCo added a label to its Walkers potato chips noting that each bag generated 80 grams of carbon dioxide. A few years later, the label was gone. "With consumers not having enough points of comparison to make the label a useful tool at the time, it was discontinued," a PepsiCo spokesperson told me.

There’s been little progress since, but 2020 looks to be the year when things started to change. In June, Unilever announced ambitious plans to attach carbon labels to its products. Now restaurants are acting, too. The change I referred to earlier is happening at Panera Bread, where many menu items now have a "Cool Food" badge attached to them. 

The label, developed by the World Resources Institute, indicates that the emissions generated by the item are in line with the institute’s recommended dietary carbon footprint. This is 38 percent smaller than the U.S. average, a cut that WRI research has found is needed by 2030 to help avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Cool Food logo (small)

There are two reasons why I think this could be the start of something meaningful. First, the Panera Bread brand isn’t built around environmental values, as you might expect from an early mover in this space. Panera and the WRI seem to have recognized this by making it easy for consumers to make low-carbon choices.

Contrast that with the Walkers experiment: PepsiCo deserves credit for being ahead of its time, but the information consumers saw on the chips — 80 grams of carbon dioxide — wasn’t meaningful to anyone aside from climate experts. (For experts and anyone else who wants more details on what qualifies as a Cool Food Meal, Panera has provided a breakdown of emissions associated with each menu item.)

It’s also critical that Panera is not going it alone. The badge is based on extensive WRI research and builds on work that the institute has been doing with foodservice operators. The hope is that other restaurants will adopt the badge, making it easier for people to find climate-friendly options whenever they eat out.

One quick aside before sign off. I described Panera as an early adopter, but the first mover here might be the Just Salad chain, which introduced carbon labels last month. After I mentioned the Panera announcement a couple of weeks back, Just Salad emailed to argue that items on its menu generate less carbon than comparable offerings at Panera. I’d like to dig into this in the future, but for now, I’ll just note that it’s awesome to see chains competing on carbon. 

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