What’s the dinner menu for tonight? If you’re faced with a choice between tofu or beef, it’s a good idea to know that there’s a 50-fold difference in the greenhouse gases produced from the two products and a 200-fold variation in the amount of land used to make these products, as per recent studies. People’s choices when shopping at the supermarket can impact how sustainable our food systems are. But what should you choose when presented with various options for the same item?

Ecolabels were developed in the late 1970s to assist consumers in distinguishing between a product that has a substantial environmental footprint that is produced in a manner that releases a lot of greenhouse gases or takes up lots of natural habitats – versus a product with a lesser footprint. In the global market, over 120 types of ecolabels are used on food and beverage products. If you’re in the UK, you may recognize some of the Marine Stewardship Council logo, the Carbon Reduction label, or the Rainforest Alliance Certified badge.

The Rainforest Alliance-certified fruits and vegetables include the frog ecolabel, a cult symbol. K I Photography/Shutterstock

The ecolabels may be, however, what is their effectiveness in helping consumers take a greener approach? In an investigation that was conducted systematically of the issue, we discovered that those who choose a beverage or food with an ecolabel versus those without choose the latter.

How do ecolabels stack-up

Our research team examined 56 studies that investigated the effect of different ecolabels on the preferences of 42,768 consumers. With the number of ecolabels available on the market, there’s no uniform format for all labels, so we wanted to find out how vital a label’s appearance and content were. We classified labels by their logo and text as well as their general message, for example, “organic,” “low-carbon,” and “pesticide-free.” Then, we examined whether the labels were more or less effective based on the consumers’ traits.

Whatever the message or its format, the participants are more inclined to select the item with an ecolabel in 79% of our studies. Additionally, we found that ecolabels had higher effectiveness on females in 67% of research. Still, we could not discern any distinction in their point based on the shopper’s earnings, age, or education.

Most studies were fictitious in that the subjects did not spend money or buy food items; however, they were required to imagine that they were shopping and then choose products with different characteristics. In the 15 research studies conducted in real-world environments, a majority (73 percent) discovered that products with ecolabels were more popular than alternatives.

Does this have the potential to make a difference?

We wanted to know the way that ecolabels affected consumer behavior. What we found suggests ecolabelling could promote more environmentally-conscious shopping. However, we did not test if the different labels accurately reflect each item’s environmental impact.

For example, even though people tend to connect organic foods with sustainability, there’s some controversy about whether organic farming practices are more sustainable for the environment than traditional methods. This is why we need to determine whether ecolabels always promote items with less environmental impact.

The environmental benefits of eco-labeled products sometimes need to be clarified. Andy Selinger/Alamy Stock Photo

We want to learn more about the unintended effects of ecolabels. For instance, whether they are promoting unhealthy choices for food and drinks. A combination of labeling products with nutritional information might help, or even the use of labels for products that meet specific standards for health.

There is no way to measure the total environmental impact of a product from the farm to the fork. Determining a product’s certifications to get an ecolabel requires further research. This can have the additional benefit of increasing these labels’ credibility and public trust in them.

At present, we can rest assured that a large majority of studies have shown eco-certified products far outperforming those without a sustainable guarantee. This could indicate a growing public interest in more sustainable living that companies and regulators have the chance to cultivate.