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Food Footprints: Subjective Consumer Perception vs. Profound LCA Data

Food Footprints: Subjective Consumer Perception vs. Profound LCA Data

Today is World Vegan Day. Vegans are people ethically very consequent. Even more consequent than vegetarians. Vegans don’t eat products that derive from living beings – no cheese, no milk, no honey. Personally, i have a lot of respect for vegans, since they act by conviction. A vegan stands by what he or she believes in, since the vast majority of animal related food production fail to comply with ethically responsible conditions. Large scale factory farming and animal transport over large distances are not in keeping with the promise of the picturesque rustic agriculture of our grand mother’s generation. Following the official image given by supermarket publicity and food packages, small scale agriculture and happy farmer’s families produce our food, along with happy animals. Nothing could be further from reality.

Image of Food – Far From Reality

On the other hand, consumers, especially those who concern themselves ethically responsible, eco-friendly or environmentally aware, have a clear picture in mind when choosing the “right” product. Bearing in mind the environmental and ethical impact of the stuff we buy, is essential for a sustainable future. Granted. This subjective picture, however, often substantially differs from the detailed life cycle assessments (LCAs) scientists and consultants calculate. As a consequence, we can summarize that both the “official” image of food, transported by the food industry, and the consumer’s subjective image of food, fail to reflect the real state of affairs.

Organic Tomatoes or Canned Beans?

Because it is vegan day, the focus of today’s article lies on vegetables. This is the matter scientists from ETH Zürich investigated. How Do Consumers Assess the Environmental Friendliness of Vegetables? The Swiss researchers assayed the difference between consumer’s perception of environmental friendliness on the one hand and professional LCAs on the other. The study reveals:

In contrast to the LCA, consumers consider transportation distance rather than transportation mode and perceive organic production as very relevant for the environmental friendliness. Furthermore, consumers assess the environmental impact of packaging and conservation as more important than the LCA results show.

So instead of looking at how far the products have been transported, we should consider how they have been transported and correlate this information with the total distance. But is this really our personal responsibility as a consumer? Will it take us ages to go shopping because we calculate the complex environmental impact for every single product on our smart phone? Will we need to limit our consumption to the little amount of products that have a professional LCA already?

No. Instead, the authors of the study call for a standardized environmental product declaration:

Findings also suggest the current product information for vegetables is insufficient for judging their environmental friendliness. Implications for information campaigns and ecological food labeling are discussed.

A document from the European Comission (PDF), talking about the above mentioned study, proposes information campaigns as a mean to bridge the gap from the current situation to the moment, when legislation on product labelling will be reality:

There are environmental benefits to consuming seasonal and domestic vegetables and avoiding air transportation, heated greenhouse production and refrigeration, which could be highlighted in information campaigns.

Furthermore, the comission declares why voluntary environmental product declarations also make sense:

In addition, educational information with criteria, such as the environmental harm from air transportation and greenhouse production methods, could also help consumers avoid such products. These measures should also be implemented for organic products, which consumers already tend to view as eco-friendly.

Inspiration for Good Eating

If you feel overcharged with morality, and going vegan is out of question, you can still do your bit. Voilà some inspiration:

  • Ask your supermarket staff when carbon footprints or Life Cycle Analysis data of their products will be available. Keep asking from time to time.
  • Eat in a vegan restaurant
  • Don’t buy cheap meat. Research organic butchers in your area – you won’t spend more, if you buy meat less often
  • Eating less meat is easy, with delicious recipes and cooking ideas from weekday vegetarian blog
  • Comment this article with your favorite idea!

Further information:

PDF brochures on Vegan Day by Vegan Society

Article image CC 2.0 BY ND by foodswings.



  • In Colombia, livestock contributes a significant impact on ecological footprint and carbon footprint, according to national studies.

    I am a vegetarian for a year and a half and I think it’s a way to reduce my impact 🙂

  • I used to eat strictly vegetarian – not vegan – for about 10 years and I still enjoy vegetarian food very much. Why I gave up on eating strictly vegetarian? I found it a too big trade off when travelling, missing an important point of experiencing different cultures, showing respect to my hosts, valueing what they offered to me. Food has such an importance from a cultural perspective, that I did not like my attitude of always saying: “Sorry, I don’t eat this and that…” So in such situations I value the cultural experience and the respect for the effort taken by the hosts higher than reduction of my personal carbon footprint.

    Certainly there are many cultures with a wonderful variety of vegan and vegetarian food choices, such as indian, and many asian countries which do not get you into trouble wiht your environmental conciousness and the preference for a complete cultural experience.

    • In my view this is the same as saying “I’m against prostitution and drugs, but I went to Amsterdam and it was part of the culture to hire a hooker and smoke some weed so I had to experience it”

      I think you have a choice there and if your a vegetarian on animal rights principals then you should stand by your principals, just because your in another culture doesn’t mean you have to go along with their culture if that is against your principals.

      Animals on the other side of the world have just as muh feeling and just as much right to their own life as those in your back yard.

      • Well, I would say there is a need to differentiate here. What “we” as Westerners know as meat production, deals with factory farming in an industrial scale in a large extent, I would consider it 99,9%. On the other hand, there still is a small scale agriculture. This is what we find more often in most of the “developing world”. Self-sufficient farming, to meet the farmer’s family’s needs.
        Personally, I allow myself to eat meat from time to time, when I know where it comes from. A chick that freely ran around the house of a farmer all its life doesn’t compare with a battery farm existence, if you know what I mean…
        So I’m with Martina – I can stand by my principles and participate in a foreign culture at the same time.

  • I often get the impression that people tend to say ” I’m vegetarien so I have a low impact on the environment or on the ecological footprint”. However, in my opinion it’s much more about the things we eat in general. If we take care where our foot comes from and how it’sbeen produced, it helps much more than just to avoid certain products. Of course, not eating meat and taking care about what we eat might be the best. What I want to say is that a vegetarien eating tropical fruits, soya products…. is not better than a person eating rarely the chicken that runs around the house and just consumes seasonal and regional foot.
    I think it’s not possible to encourage people to reduce their impacts to the environment by saying you can’t do this and that.
    It’s much easier and maybe more effective to tell people that they don’t need to change the whole diet but to pay attention that you take the best out of a certain variety. For example: If you live in Germany and it’s summer, please take the strawberries from the next field and not the strawberries that are imported from southern Europe.