Sandeep [00:00:36] You're listening to Food by Design, an IDEO podcast where we talk to the people who are building the food systems will need in the future, right now. We go where the questions are, looking at gaps in the current systems and share what we learn. All the find out, what's next? We're here to start the conversations that can help make better food systems for every one of us. I'm your host, Sandeep Pahuja.
Sandeep [00:01:05] Today, we're talking about how decision making impacts the food system. I know that when I first started paying attention to food systems and working with our design teams at IDEO, I just assumed that all of my food product choices and preferences were my own. But it turns out I've absorbed years of marketing and many of my decisions happen on autopilot.
Sandeep [00:01:26] Companies and marketers use all kinds of psychological tricks and triggers to win us over. Tricks like labeling a food product is all natural, even though it's fried in hydrogenated oils or has high fructose corn syrup. Technically, those oils and corn syrup are in fact all natural. But the term all natural is put on the package to make you think the product is better for you when it actually isn't. What if food companies use that same persuasiveness for the good of the planet instead? We might eat more nutritiously if we had a bit more information when making a decision, if we understood the stakes between option A and option B, could we get people to pick the more climate friendly option B? In order to get consumers to do that, sometimes all it takes is a little nudge in the right direction.
Sandeep [00:02:21] When Maisie Ganzler was getting started in the food industry, there were no companies with Chief Sustainability Officers.
Maisie [00:02:28] This job didn't exist. And the word sustainability. Well, it technically existed was not applied to business and certainly not to the food business.
Sandeep [00:02:37] This is back in 1994. In 94, I was a 10 year old boy sneaking into my big brother's room to listen to Illmatic and Ready to Die. Maisie on the other hand, was fresh out of college looking for a new job.
Maisie [00:02:50] I read an article in a trade magazine, it was "Restaurants and Institutions" magazine, which doesn't exist anymore, called a baker's dozen of piping hot companies to watch.
Sandeep [00:03:02] On this list was Bon Appetit Management Company, no relation to the magazine. Bon Appetit is a contract food service company, the kind of organization that staffs and supplies museum cafes, university cafeterias, and office eateries.
Maisie [00:03:16] And so I did what one did in those days, which sounds totally crazy now. I got the newspaper and looked in the classifieds to see if there was a job and I couldn't find a phone number. I saw a position, but no phone number. So I went to the public library where they had all of the phone books and looked up the phone number for Bon Appetit, which was in Menlo Park at the time and called.
Sandeep [00:03:44] Maisie managed to get herself hired into an entry level position. What attracted her to Bon Appetit was that they served highly flavorful, more nutritionally dense restaurant quality food in unexpected places, the places where you might usually expect to settle for bland dishes that were more often than not less good for you instead of mystery meats and casseroles. Bon Appetit serves chef driven plates like wild mushroom crusted venison with a huckleberry juniper demi glace.
Sandeep [00:04:14] The company did prove to be one to watch. Before Covid-19, they served a mind boggling 250 million meals a year at all kinds of venues. The Getty Museum, the Chase Center or Arena, M.I.T. and Twitter, among others. Bon Appetit has grown to be a billion dollar plus business while being an industry leader in environmentally and socially responsible practices. They've been recognized by organizations like the James Beard Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Sandeep [00:04:47] As Maisie rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the chief strategy and brand officer, she and CEO Fidele Bauccio had conversations that would lay the groundwork for the future of the company.
Maisie [00:04:59] Everybody that talks about sustainability in food has one of two stories. They were going along. They were a cook, or they were a manager, and then they either went to Chez Panisse or to Moosewood, depending if they were West Coasters or East Coasters and they had these awakening's. And I said, what if we could be that for people?
Sandeep [00:05:25] Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and Moosewood in Ithaca, New York, are seminal restaurants in the mindful eating and slow food movement. They both opened in the early 70s and have always sourced local produce from regional farms, serving only what's organic and in-season. They grew into cultural institutions that inspired former employees to open their own restaurants and businesses. Maisie says this is a big part of how changes made through like minded employees and evangelical diners.
Maisie [00:05:52] But we employ so many more people than those individual restaurants can or as diners. And most of our diners eat with us again and again and again because we're at their workplace or we're on their college campus. So we're essentially at their home. We have the potential to impact so many more people.
Sandeep [00:06:13] Maisie says that at the time, some of the produce they were buying was lacking in flavor. Some of their vendors, for example, were harvesting tomatoes when they were green and hard so they could survive shipping, which made for a really pale, unappetizing tomato salad. So Bon Appetit started an initiative called Farm to Fork aimed at buying produce from farms within a 150 mile radius.
Maisie [00:06:36] And it was really about flavor. It was a culinary act, not a political one. We didn't think that customers were going to care about the name of the farmer. That sounds stupid now, but if you can put yourself back in the late 90s. But we thought they would taste the difference.
Sandeep [00:06:50] Buying from local farms opened their eyes not just to the issues in U.S. agriculture, but the food system at large. That's what got them thinking about the environment in a bigger way. With the campaign, they called the "Oil in your Oatmeal," they educated people about the petroleum inputs in the food system, which led them directly to climate change. In 2007, Bon Appetit launched the Low Carbon Diet, an initiative that highlighted the link between climate change and food production. Yeah, I said 2007, 13 years ago. They've been thinking about this way before it ever went mainstream. That led them to set up targets around reducing the company's carbon emissions. They had five main goals. One aimed at serving local seasonal food. And one about reducing food waste. They stopped buying processed or packaged food except for some candies and sweets.
Maisie [00:07:42] We eliminated foreign bottled water, really looked at airfreight vs. shipping and trains, limiting airfreighted, seafood and non-tropical fruits.
Sandeep [00:07:56] But their most ambitious goal was also the riskiest.
Maisie [00:07:59] The biggest one was what we called "Moooooove away from beef and cheese" and trying to reduce our beef purchases by 25 percent. We eventually wound up reducing our beef purchases by 33 percent where we are today. It's very trendy to be not serving beef, but at the time it seemed crazy as we explored in our episode about soil and carbon.
Sandeep [00:08:27] The production of beef is a big contributor to climate change. Cows emit a large amount of methane, As you know. (Cow Burp) It's the last one in the series, I promise. (mini burp) When you add the carbon emissions generated from converting land for agricultural use and the soil erosion, beef's impact on our climate is substantial. Of course, we know it doesn't have to be that way, at least not if everyone was carbon farming the way Loren and Lisa Poncia do back at their cattle ranch in Northern California. We heard from them in our second episode.
Sandeep [00:09:04] Listen. Cutting back on beef is a no brainer, earth friendly choice. But we all know how Americans feel about their cheeseburgers. This was not going to be an easy sell for Bon Appetit to make to its customers. And they got some pushback.
Maisie [00:09:18] We heard you've drunk Al Gore's Kool-Aid and it was a very partisan issue at the time.
Sandeep [00:09:25] They decided to promote their new goals with a Low Carbon Diet day, a day in which the whole menu at every one of Bon Appetit cafes was climate friendly. Here, they experimented with taking their goal of beef reduction to the extreme.
Maisie [00:09:39] Like not serve any hamburgers or any beef, which really shook people up that they couldn't have beef on a day. But then we wanted the rest of the time for it to be stealth because we wanted people to not be shaken up and just be making better choices and get into the rhythm and and just love other items and start ordering them because they tasted good, not because they were being guilted out of eating the big, bad beef.
Sandeep [00:10:08] So how do you "stealth" get people to make different choices about what they eat? This is something restaurants do all the time with what they call menu engineering. Restaurants are notoriously difficult businesses to run. Typically operating on razor thin margins. The idea with menu engineering is to identify your most profitable and popular items and then you redesign the menu and change how servers talk about the food. Keeping in mind those items that help a restaurant's bottom line. Maisie and her team applied that same idea to climate friendly foods. So then how do you make big, bad beef less attractive? They had their chefs strategize ways to design and serve dishes to satisfy a meat eater, even though there was less of it on the plate.
Maisie [00:10:53] Things like can you take a menu item that would traditionally be a plated item with meat in the center? And can you turn that into a bowl? Bowls are really popular these days where the majority of the bulk is actually the vegetables filling up the bowl and then that smaller portion of meat is on top going to die. Look how delicious I look. But oh, my gosh. I'm only two ounces, not six or eight, because I've got so many other wonderful things around me and underneath me to bulk up the dish.
Sandeep [00:11:27] The whole idea with this was to guide people to make choices that were better for the environment without necessarily having to preach to them about it.
Maisie [00:11:35] We know that if you put a box around items that people's eyes go towards them. We know that if you have a healthy item and you label it as healthy, that people don't order it. We know that if you have a vegetarian item and it's the only item that it's an outlier and it becomes the freak. You have to have three.
Sandeep [00:11:56] Maisie and Bon Appetit were wading into what behavioral economists called choice architecture. Of course, consumers have freedom of choice, but they're often influenced by the way in which their choices are presented to push you towards a desired outcome. A choice architect might give you a little nudge.
Rick [00:12:16] So the idea of a nudge is that we can help people make better decisions if we change things in their environment that help push or nudge them in a direction.
Sandeep [00:12:26] This is Dr. Rick Larrick. He's a professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Rick's research focuses on decision making and what strategies might influence consumers to make climate friendly choices. Rick and his colleagues studied just how well people understood how much energy it takes to produce a food product compared to the energy needed to run an appliance. For example, just one serving of beef is far more energy intensive than running an air conditioner for an hour. And that has major implications for the planet. The principle is that if people knew the truth, they might choose to eat differently.
Rick [00:13:04] What we found was that people way underestimate the energy consequences of food and the greenhouse gas emissions related to food. Beef produces about 10 times as much carbon emissions as soybeans do. And so when you think about the carbon consequences of of eating meat, especially red meat, beef is just way more intensive when it comes to the greenhouse gas emissions. And in people's mind, they see it as only twice as bad as soybeans. And I recognize that it's 10 times as bad.
Sandeep [00:13:42] People thought the climate impacts of one serving of beef was just like turning on a 25 watt light bulb. But Rick says it's more comparable to running a microwave oven for two hours.
Rick [00:13:53] One reason why we thought this was going to be worth exploring was just that, compared to appliances, the processes of making food are more mysterious. People might have a bit of an Old MacDonald's view of where their food comes from, that there's animals running around farms and sunny, the animals end up in the supermarket. And so you don't understand how industrial the processes.
Sandeep [00:14:16] And that means we don't understand how carbon intensive the processes either.
Sandeep [00:14:20] The results of their study got Rick and his colleagues wondering what would happen if they gave consumers information upfront about the carbon impacts of their food. Would this nudge them to make a more climate friendly choice?
Sandeep [00:14:33] Rick his colleagues set up a lab to look like a grocery store where they brought in real people, gave them real money and asked them to go shopping and buy exactly three cans of soup. Some of the soup labels had an icon shaped like a light bulb to signify the amount of energy and emissions involved in making that soup. Some light bulbs had higher numbers. Some had lower numbers.
Rick [00:14:54] So for a beef soup, it would be a couple of thousand minutes worth of greenhouse gas emissions. And for the vegetable soup would be only a couple hundred. So that's kind of 10 times difference between the beef and the vegetables and what happened.
Sandeep [00:15:10] The control group with no light bulbs on their soup labels, but two out of three cans of beef soup. The other group, the one with the light bulbs on the soup labels. They only bought one out of three cans of beef soup. That's half as many cans of beef soup, if you gave people better information.
Rick [00:15:29] Statistically, we could show that it was the access to this new information that had made the difference in their in their way of thinking.
Sandeep [00:15:37] Given how promising this looks, why aren't we nudging consumers to make more responsible choices more often? In some ways we have been. Think of those signs in your hotel room nudging you to reuse your towel one more time. But Rick says that nudging can backfire because humans are tricky. Once you've reused your towel, you might feel like you've done enough good for the planet. I'm all set. I'm good. If a nudge makes a consumer feel condescended to, it's not helpful. Sometimes you might want to push a consumer towards a specific action, but it's not solving the broader issue at all. For example, nudges can guide consumers to buy fresh food at a grocery store. But what good is that if the food goes to waste at home?
Sandeep [00:16:25] Maisie and Bon Appetit want to make sure they're doing the right kind of nudging and they've experimented with many different ways to figure it out.
Maisie [00:16:33] We imagine that we would attach CO2E scores to menu items.
Sandeep [00:16:40] A CO2E score refers to its carbon emissions.
Maisie [00:16:44] And actually have that be part of the menu item at the point of sale.
Sandeep [00:16:48] So when you're looking at the mapo tofu on the menu, you also see its carbon emissions score right there as well.
Maisie [00:16:54] And while the amount of science out there that clearly show a difference between the carbon emissions of a beef dish versus a chicken dish versus tofu, it's not really good enough to compare vegetable to vegetable or tofu to tofu. And so it became very obvious beef high school or vegetable low score and became very redundant on many is it just didn't really pan out from a visual standpoint and make the impact we hoped it would.
Sandeep [00:17:24] But this info did end up making it onto a Web site they launched: www.eatlowcarbondot.org. People visiting that site can toggle through the images of various plates of food, a roast beef sandwich, pasta primavera, and learn the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted during the product's lifecycle. Afterwards, they can test their knowledge with a quiz, just like we did at the beginning of the episode.
Sandeep [00:17:50] Seven years after their Low Carbon Diet campaign launched. Bon Appetite measured their efforts and found they reduce their carbon emissions by around 5,000,000 pounds of carbon dioxide every month. They've recommitted to the low carbon diet goals and are now focusing their efforts on purchasing. They want to serve less than one ounce of beef per person per meal.
Maisie [00:18:11] The written policies is our food standards could be replicated at a small scale by an individual restaurant, and in fact, they should be able to go beyond what we're doing because I'm trying to write a policy that works for over a thousand cafes across the country. They should be able to go further at a single location.
Sandeep [00:18:30] There are upsides to the scale of Bon Appetit. Their purchasing power allows Maisie to have a seat at the table with the major producers. This also allows her to push them towards the issues that Bon Appetit cares about, like antibiotic free and humane farm, animal care, farm worker issues, food waste. And of course, climate change.
Maisie [00:18:53] I wouldn't get to have those conversations if I was just a single operator. Nobody wants me to come and have those conversations, but they sure weren't my purchase.
Sandeep [00:19:03] Maisie and I share a point of view that we believe is critical for the future of food. We can't just rely on the innovative little guys to spur change.
Maisie [00:19:11] A lot of the food movement wants to opt out of those big, bad companies, but I strongly believe that we have to keep a foot in both worlds.
Sandeep [00:19:24] Over the past 20 years, we've learned an immense amount about how folks are and are not motivated to change their behaviors for a better climate. Looking at the sustainability movement outside of food has a lot to teach us.
Sandeep [00:19:38] Take Gen Z, for example. Their consumption habits are drastically different than those who preceded them. They've shifted from a reliance on single use plastic bags to reusable ones, and they prioritize sustainable services like Rent the Runway over disposable fast fashion. These are industry shaking norms that all point to a better way.
Sandeep [00:19:59] And I'm not ashamed to say that I've changed my own habits for the better since learning from Maisie and Rick. I try not to buy or consume any products that have been airfreighted internationally. The other thing I just can't get out of my head is that story Rick shared of the microwave running for hours. That's even nudged me to make and eat more vegetarian food. We humans mean well, but we're creatures of habit, which is why understanding decision making is so relevant to changing our systems. If we could incorporate the latest science and proven techniques, we could help people switch out of autopilot.
Sandeep [00:20:44] So here's the design opportunity, how might we nudge the system to default to the most climate friendly options?
Sandeep [00:20:52] If this gets your wheels turning and makes you excited to share ideas, thoughts or maybe even better questions. Visit ideo.com/food. And help us keep working to create better food systems for everyone. Thanks for listening. If you learn something and enjoyed this, please send it to a friend and you can really help by leaving a perfect rating and a review. You know, the algorithms love that.
[00:21:15] I'm Sandeep Pahuja. This is Food by Design. The show was created by Sarah Codraro and me. Today's episode was produced by Evan Roberts and edited by Tina Antolini and Julia Scott. Mark Henry Phillips composed our original music. Chris Hoff is our engineer. Special thanks to Matt Ridenour, Judy Hsu and Sarah Rich.