Essay: Environmental impact of food production and consumption

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  • Environmental impact of food production and consumption
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In the last few decades, the environmental impact of food production and consumption have become a phenomenon of growing concern under different perspectives and with several related consequences in term of malnutrition, food safety, CO2 emissions and deforestation (Baroni, et al., 2007; Gustavsson, et al., 2011). Environmental degradation is not a new concern among the global community, and the first discussion about this issue is collocated around the late 1960s, likewise successively, due to the increasing pressure of the production systems on the environment, the topic had been investigated deeply with the aim to understand the antecedents of this trend, as well as to find possible solutions (Gallastegui, 2002).
The consumption phase, in European countries, accounts for 20/30% of the environmental impact of households and it represents the dimension where food is to a significant extent wasted, even if it is still suitable for human utilization. Findings mentioned above emphasize the central role played by consumers’ behavioural consumption patterns, also revealing that once the goods are produced, designed and delivered into the market, there is not much that can be done to avoid environmental damage (Gallastegui, 2002). In this perspective, it has been reported that all the actors within the supply chain need to make possible for consumers to choose less environmentally harmful products (Grankvist, et al., 2007), and subsequently reducing the presence of less eco-friendly goods within the market (Thogersen, 2001).
Consumers’ reactions became consequently crucial in order to protect the eco-system and to manage the actual behavioural consumption pattern, in such a way that it would shift towards more sustainable eating habits and production procedures (Gallastegui, 2002). Sustainable consumption is based on a decision-making process that takes the consumer’s social responsibility into account, in combination with individual needs and wants (Meulenberg, 2003). In other words, it can be defined as the use of goods and services that are related with an higher quality of life in term of concepts such as: healthiness, environmental sustainability and safety. Moreover, the products that should be consumed are produced with the aim to minimize the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, in order to not jeopardize the needs of future generations (Norwegian Ministry of Environment, 1994).
In support to sustainable behaviour, it has been proved that in Europe the environmental burden could be reduced (around 10%) by decreasing the dairy and meat product consumption (Tukker, et al., 2011; Jungbluth, et al., 2013; Westhoek, et al., 2014), given that they are the goods with the greatest repercussion on the environment. Indeed, it has been reported that if animals were considered as ‘food production machines’, the impact of animal waste on the ecosystem would be comparable to the impact of pesticides and chemical fertilizers (World Watch Institute, 2004).
As reported by the research of Baroni et al. (2007), which investigated the environmental impact of food production and disposal combined with different dietary patterns, vegetarian and vegan diets could play an important role in preserving natural resources and in reducing hunger and malnutrition in poorer nations, due to their lighter impact on the eco-system compared with omnivorous diets (Gussow, 1994; Fox, 1999). However, a deviation from a more meat-based diet in favour to an increased direct consumption of plant foods is not an easily achievable goal.
The study of Vermeir et al., (2006) demonstrated that every day consumption practices are still heavily driven by convenience, habit, value for money, personal health concerns, hedonism, individual responses to social and institutional norms and, most importantly, these practices are likely to be resistant to change. For instance, the difficulty of establishing a broad acceptance for meat substitutes is mostly related with the fact that these types of products are relatively new and, more importantly, they stay behind in term of overall consumers’ quality evaluations (Hoek, et al., 2011). The latter dimension is the most critic in order to forecast the consumer’s purchasing behaviour (Tsiotsou, 2006). Specifically, meat substitutes are defined as meat replacers, alternatives, or analogy (Davies &Lightowler, 1998; McIlveen, Abraham, & Armstrong, 1999; Sadler, 2004), and they are primarily vegetable based food products that contain proteins made from pulses (mainly soy), cereal protein, or fungi.
Although both popularity and presence of vegetarian and vegan products are constantly increasing within the market, the share of these goods is still unequivocally smaller than standard food (some time even under 1%) and they are not even considered as a truly alternative during consumers’ groceries decision. Thus, even if meat substitutes score higher on animal and environmental friendliness attributes than to meat (Van der Lans, 2001), consumers seems to rely more on other key dimensions of a product, such as: price, quality, convenience, and brand familiarity (Carrigan, et al., 2001). As a result, besides these goods are intended to attract new consumers especially among meat lovers, currently they are primarily used by vegetarians and semi-vegetarians with a strong emphasis on health and ethical quality aspects (Hoek, et al., 2004; Janda, et al., 2001; McIlveen, et al., 1999; Sadler, 2004).
Therefore, considering the barriers for the broad acceptance of these product within the market, which feasible strategy may be applied in order to make the consumers less resistant to change?
According to Gallastegui (2002) a potential response could arise from the use of an eco-labelling programs, which seeks, firstly, to encourage a move towards more environmentally friendly consumption patterns, by providing consumers with insights on their food choices implications, and secondly, to induce productive structures, governments and other agents to increase the environmental standards, as well as quality and safety of the products in the economy.
However, within the existing literature, these reported positive effects are rarely empirically verified, and actual eco-labelling systems are found to be poorly understandable, due to the multitude of different type of label and the high level of diversity among the totality of labelled information, which makes consumers intention to buy this category really low (Bernue, et al., 2003; Dendler, 2014; Grankvist, et al., 2007; Vermeir, et al., 2006). According to several studies aimed to find feasible strategy to improve eco-labelling systems (Graça, et al., 2015; Grankvist, et al., 2007; Vlaeminck, et al., 2014), in the current research will be tested a multi-crieteria labelling system (named “Zero-Impact”) based on prodcuts related Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA), in order to make easier for consumers, the exploitation of labelled features. Given the completedness and the intuitiveness reported for these type of lebel (Vlaeminck, et al., 2014) while in the short run these may increase the consumer awareness and the opportunity to engage in more sustainable actions by adopting more sustainable food items (Thogersen, 2001), in the long run it has been reported that the promotion through socialization and national institutions of right values, such as universalism, benevolence, self-direction and honesty (Vermeir, et al., 2006), are important drivers for enhancing sustainable behaviour patterns (Thogersen, 2001).
In this perspective, the following study seeks primarily to test whether the application of such a label may drive consumers behaviour toward the consumption of more sustainable food, and by doing so, it will take into account consumers’ buying intentions, as well as consumers’ overall quality perceptions. Furthermore, as reported above, vegetarian and vegan eating habits (meat/fish/ dairy products’ avoiders) are associated with the lowest level of environmental impact, but due to low awareness, familiarity and quality evaluations that consumers hold toward alternatives products such as meat substitutes (e.g. tofu, soya, etc.), these goods are rarely considered during consumers’ groceries decisions, especially when examining highly appreciated food like meat (Baroni, et al., 2007; Graça, et al., 2015; Hoek, et al., 2011). Basing on the reasons above, this research will investigate the effect exerting by the “Zero-Impact” label, specifically taking into account two different categories of food products. The aim is to assess whether the label has a direct relation with consumers’ quality inferences, to what extent it is likely to influence consumers’ buying intentions (also considering quality perception), and finally how this effects are likely to change across different categories of food.
To conclude, the goal of the current paper leads to the following problem statement:
Actual Consumption Behavioural pattern
An evolution of the current pattern of consumers’ consumption behaviour, is for clear reasons needed. For instance, it has been reported that the exploitation of natural resources is not uniformly distributed across countries: Europe, North America and Japan, which represent about 15% of the world population, are directly and/or indirectly responsible for an estimated 80% of planetary resources consumption and toxic pollution (Gladwin, et al., 1997). Water consumption represents by itself the most concerning outcome arising from production and livestock: it accounts for about 41–46% of its overall impact; but more importantly, animal farming and agriculture are responsible for almost 70% of freshwater consumption on the planet, while the portion for domestic purpose counts just for the 8% (Watch World Institute, 2004).
Although the public opinion is aware of these critic implications, reducing or finding an alternative for the consumption of meat turned out to be a challenging task. Grankvist et al., (2002) demonstrated that people often engage in actions against the environment, despite they hold attitudes that are positive towards environmentally friendly behaviour. Several researches show that 52% of consumers were interested in purchasing ‘‘earth-sustainable’’ foods, but they did not purchase those foods owing to the perceived barriers of lack of availability, followed by inconvenience and price (Robinson, et al., 2002). The phenomenon cited above has been called the “Attitudes–Behavioural Gap” (Vermeir, et al., 2006) and it has been considered one of the critic dimensions towards the achievement of a greater pattern of sustainable consumption. In addition, Carrigan et al., (2001) found that also overall perceived product quality and brand familiarity are viewed as important barriers for purchasing eco-friendlier goods.
Therefore, if it has been demonstrated that the actual consumption’s behavioural pattern is responsible for a large part of the household’s environmental impact (WRAP, 2010), on the other side, the presence of many barriers to the eco-friendly market is clearly the sign of a lack of coordination between retailers and other actors within the Food Supply Chain (Gustavsson, et al., 2011). Numerous papers have addressed both the actual consumption behaviour and the lack of coordination along the supply chain as the correlated causes of a shift towards a more sustainable consumption and production. However, as reported by Prothero et al., (2011), given that consumers’ researchers have identified several contributing factors in order to solve the problem behind the “Attitude–Behavioural Gap”, much more research is needed, especially in addressing different specific context in which the consumer makes purchasing, consumption and disposal decisions. Grankvist et al., (2007) defined as a feasible strategy makes consumer more responsible by demanding and choosing more environmentally friendly products, and addressed as a useful tool in direction to this objective, the presence of an eco-friendly label.
Before introducing the concept of eco-labelling system, the next sub-section will provide an overview about the actual consumers’ behaviour toward relative vice (meat) and virtue (meat substitutes) food in the current food market, specifically in terms of their relative consumption trends and overall quality perception.
2.1.1 Meat and meat substitutes: Consumptions’ trends
Within the existing literature, distinctions in term of type of food have been widely used by marketing scholars in order to test the validity of their research’ findings and effects across different categories (Hui, et al., 2009; Milkman, et al., 2008; Mishra, et al., 2011). The main reason for the relevance of those dimensions within the field is that consumers associate food’s consumption with various and different values, which in turn influence their buying behaviour (Batra, et al., 1990). Evidences regarding meat and meat substitutes are clearly provided by previous studies, and the most relevant findings can be summarised in term of actual behavioural pattern and overall consumers evaluations.
First of all, the current consumers’ behaviour reveals a clear superiority for meat products in term of consumption frequency, with a three or more times per week for meat-based meals against two or less times per week for meat substitutes (Aurelia, 2002). By comparing market shares of these categories, it can be seen that meat substitutes shows a lower percentage, ranging between 1% and 2% compared to meat (De Bakker, et al., 2010). Further, considering the value that consumer associate to these categories, it has been reported that the consumption of meat is strongly associated with an high hedonic values (Graça, et al., 2015) such as experiencing fun, amusement, fantasy and sensory stimulation (Babin, et al., 1994). Conversely, advocated of vegetarianism had reported utilitarian associations, related with the adoption of a less carnivorous diet, such as: personal health, concern with cruelty to animals, matters for world hunger, and concern with damage to the environment (Dietz, et al., 1995).
Equivalently, meat and meat substitutes can be distinguished between relative vice and virtue food. Whereas relative vices are products that provide immediate pleasurable experience (e.g. good taste of a steak) while contributing to negative long-term outcomes (e.g. CO2 emissions), on the other side, relative virtues are seen as less gratifying and appealing items in the short term, but with a less negative long-term consequences compared to vices; therefore they are considered as a more prudent choice (Milkman, et al., 2008; Okada, 2005; Wertenbroch, 1998). Thus, it can be assumed that meat consumption, which is described as both a pleasurable tastiness experience (Hoek, et al., 2011) and a great antecedent of environmental impact, will be perceived as more vice than meat substitutes food, which consumption is specifically reported as lesser appealing, but the highest in sustainable features (Baroni, et al., 2007). In support to the assumption reported above, several authors reported that meat substitutes stayed behind in overall product evaluation, particularly in the sensory appreciation, as well as over different attributes such as price and luxury (Aiking, et al., 2006; McIlveen, et al., 1999; Van der Lans, 2001).
One of the main reasons that might help to explain the differences among these two goods, is the consumers’ familiarity and awareness. While meat substitutes are products relatively new for the market (Sadler, 2004), the consumption of meat-based meals is deeply embedded to the eating habits across several countries and cultures (de Boer, 2006; Parfitt, et al., 2010).
To sum up, besides the cultural embeddedness, products that are meant to replace meat, such as: tofu, soya and other vegetable protein, score significantly low in term of overall consumers’ quality perception, which it has been widely defined as one of the most important dimension toward forecasting consumers’ willingness to buy (or to pay) during shopping situations (Tsiotsou, 2006; Van Doorn, et al., 2010).
2.2 Overview of existing Eco-labelling system
Attempts aimed to solve issues related with food wastage and household consumption, have ranged from green taxes and the definition of property rights to strict bans and other regulatory measures (Gallastegui, 2002). However recently, ‘environmental labelling’ or ‘eco-labelling’ systems have been reported as one of the most prominent measures to facilitate more sustainable behavioural patterns, by providing consumers’ relevant ethical information of the good, aimed to influence their subsequent purchasing intentions (Dendler, 2014).
Studies show that only few consumers have an high awareness or comprehension of the real sustainable characteristics of products (Vermeir, et al., 2006). The main reasons behind this trend is the poor communication of the benefits carried by this goods to consumers, in such a way that they are unable to make informed purchasing decisions and to acknowledge for the related implications on the food supply chain (Dickson, 2001; Verbeke, 2005). In other words, the less information available and/or the more complex and contradictory this information is, the more uncertain consumers may be regarding what products to choose. Labelling systems, or more specifically eco-friendly labels, can generally be described as the product related information that seeks to inform consumers about the effects on the environment of the production, consumption and waste phases of the products/services consumed (Gallastegui, 2002).
Within existing literature, there is a clear distinction between three different variety of labels: Type I, Type II and Type III (OECD, 1997). While Type II, which consist of one-sided informative environmental claims referring to specific attributes of products (such as “CFC” free), is mainly used in B2B contexts, Type III labels, which use pre-set indices and give quantified information about products based on independent verification, are rarely found in environmental fields (Zarrilli, et al., 1997). Type I label is instead reported as the label more likely to carry eco-sustainable claim for non-durable goods, and according to Gallastegui (2002) they can be described as products of third party certification programmes, usually government supported and voluntary. The main objective of Type I label is to certify both products and production processes by clearly providing information related to the entire life cycle of the product, and also by comparing them with other alternative within the same category (Gallastegui, 2002). Consequently, it seeks to encourage the actors within the food supply chain, such as producers, retailers and governments to increase the environmental standards of products/services, hence generating a strong sense of corporate social responsibility among business entities (Acquaye, et al., 2015).
Besides these reported positive outcome, the study of Grunert, (2011), which analysed the eco-labelled food market from a consumers perspective, reported six main barriers toward the exploitation of labelled information, which specifically are: (i) exposure does not lead to perception (some consumers may simply do not notice the label, because most purchases are made habitually); (ii) perception leads only to peripheral processing (consumers do not spend effort in understanding the label’s mean); (iii) consumers make ‘wrong’ inferences (they see the label, make effort to understand the meaning, but draw the wrong inferences); (iv) eco-information is traded off against other criteria (e.g. the price may be higher, the taste is not good, the family prefers something else); (v) lack of awareness and/or credibility (consumers who want to make sustainable choices may find it hard to carry them out in practice); and (vi) lack of motivation at time of choice (while consumes have a positive attitude towards sustainability, this attitude is not so strong that it affects behaviour in all situations where sustainability may be a criterion). As a result, even when consumers are motivated to and willing to consume more eco-friendly products, they have little access to a product\’s overall environmental quality and have to rely on heuristics or rule of thumbs for making their purchasing decisions, such as whether a product is organic or local (Scheibehenne, et al., 2007).
As a confirmation of the study above, other investigations revealed that there is a large contrast between the actual labelled goods features versus consumer’s objective knowledge and perception of labels (Verbeke, et al., 1999; Verbeke, et al., 2006), as well as, that consumers, due to lack of time and financial resources, during the purchase situation prioritise other aspects, such as price and quality, rather than sustainable features (Neergaard, et al., 2002)
As possible solution, Vlaeminck et al. (2014) demonstrated that the introduction of a multi-criteria labelling scheme (for B2C contexts) based on a review of the life-cycle (impact) analysis (LCA), can lead to an increase of the consumers’ understanding and response toward labelled information. Specifically these data are relative to the product’s environmental impact in term of: global warming potential, primary energy use, water use, land and pesticide use. Although stand-alone environmental indicators such as the carbon and water footprint or traceability information, are becoming increasingly popular (Kehagia, et al., 2007; Lin, et al., 2014), they do not provide to consumers a clear indication of the overall environmental impact since they are a trade-offs between CO2-emissions, water and land use (Gerbens-Leenes, et al., 2003). Likewise, other marketing scholars found that the existing labelling schemes too often emphasize only one single environmentally relevant factor, such as whether a product is organic, its carbon emissions or its place of origin (Van Amstel, et al., 2008; Grunert, et al., 2014).
With the same aim and following the suggestions above, Dendler (2014) reported as one possible approach, the creation of a single labelling program that includes an easily recognized mark, a rating system to compare products (e.g. four stars ranking scale), an environmental nutrition label to provide additional information for experienced environmental purchasing professionals and an online database of additional environmental factors for experts. It has been reported that when environmental product declarations provides detailed information in addition to comprehensive and quantitative data regarding the product’s whole life cycle, consumers seem to prioritise the environmental aspect of a product, and furthermore, such insights are expected to trigger positive judgements about the reliability of the label (Palm, et al., 1998; Solér, 2001).
Considering the findings reported above, it can be assumed that the implementation of some form of ‘meta’ scheme that condenses existing product labels and other communication measures into an overarching sustainability message, could be a feasible approach to increase the consumers’ accessibility to eco-labelled features (Dendler, 2014). However, it has been proved that the adoption of an eco-label, not always mean the acquisition of the correspondent eco-labelled product (Thøgersen, 2002).
Eco-labels are tools for assisting consumers in their decision-making, hence, a consumer who has adopted an eco-label, will repeatedly and consistently considers the labelled information when choosing products in a certain category. According to several marketing scholars, in order to forecast whether product the consumer will choose, the overall consumers’ quality evaluations toward the item and its related category, become one of the most critic dimension to measure (Tsiotsou, 2006).
To conclude, in the next section will be provided an overview about whether the presence of sustainable\\ethical claims may influences the consumers’ overall quality perceptions toward eco-labelled food.
2.3 Consumers’ Overall Quality Perception toward Sustainable food
This concept is one of the most explored within the marketing literature, and the reason why it holds such huge interest from scholars of marketing, is primarily related to its centrality for consumers’ purchasing intentions and behaviour.
Perceived quality has been defined as the consumer’s judgment about a product’s overall excellence or superiority (Tsiotsou, 2006), and it has been clearly differentiated from the concept of objective quality. While objective quality refers to the actual technical excellence of the product that can be verified and measured (Monroe, et al., 1985), perceived product quality is a global assessment of the preference toward the item itself, that are characterized by a high abstraction level and referring to a specific consumption setting (Zeithaml, 1988). In other words, perceived product quality represents all the perceptions that consumers feel about the product relatively to a determinate context (e.g. shopping situation).
Although it has been demonstrated that overall perceived product quality is an antecedent of consumers’ buying intention, as well as consumers’ satisfaction (Tsiotsou, 2006), within existing literature, references about how consumers value ethical and sustainable product’s characteristics are very scarce and usually contradicting.
Broadly, it can be seen that sustainability is not always an asset, even if most consumers care about social and environmental issues (Luchs, et al., 2010). In support of the statement above, and as mentioned in the previous section, besides consumers view sustainable products positively, on the other hand, there is evidence that increasing product ethicality may not always increase preference, neither overall quality perception.
For many years scholars had focus on theories such as the halo effect, affect heuristic, or the schema-consistent judgments, in order to explain the reasons behind the difference in term of quality perception for different sustainable goods (Asch, 1946; Fiske, et al., 1986; Finucane, et al., 2000). Specifically, all the three concepts reported above are based on the idea that if a product is judged to be superior on one observable attribute, it will also be perceived favourably along other dimensions. In other words, if the consumers may perceive the ethicality of the product as superior, he/she will be more positive in evaluating other features, and eventually more willing to buy it. On the contrary, the study of Chernev et al., (2001) found that, given the behavioural implications of efficient markets, which reports that all products within the market are a trade-off between inferior and superior attribute, when the consumer perceives a product’s feature as superior than other, he/her will perceive other attributes of the item as relatively inferior, resulting in lower quality evaluation and purchasing intentions.
As possible resolution of these confounding papers, more recently Luchs et al., (2010) propose that the degree to which sustainability enhances preference, depends on the type of benefit consumers most value for the product category in question. Thus, the level of consumer’s perceptions will depend on consumer’s personal need, values, and category’ most valued attributes. Specifically, the research was based on the idea that ethical and sustainable messages can carry with them the associations of being “gentle”, while contrarily, the absence of such features is mostly related with being an individual strongly concerned with personal goals and success, even if it comes at a cost to others (Kanov, et al., 2004). The concept explained above is the theory of socio-cultural messages, and according to Luchs et al., (2010), it can be transferred to the context of product judgement. As main finding, this paper reveal that within product categories where gentleness-related attributes were valued, ethical and sustainable features becomes an assets enhancing consumers’ evaluations and preferences; while on the other side, in product categories in which strength-related attributes were valued, sustainability could be a liability that may undermine the consumer’s buying intentions.
To summarize, it can be assumed that associations with ethicality and sustainability will differentially drive preference for sustainable products, depending on the primary benefits ought in the product category. For this reason it is expected that the labelled information may influence consumers differently, in regard of whether food category the labelled product belongs to.
3 CONCEPTUAL MODEL AND HYPOTHESIS
3.1 Conceptual model
The central cornerstone for this paper is the perspective by which, among high-medium income countries, the environmental impact, which is mainly related to consumers’ consumption and disposal behaviour, could be lowered by a shift toward more sustainable behavioural patterns (Carrigan, et al., 2001; Hoek, et al., 2004).
The exploitation of an eco-labelling systems has been defined as a feasible tool capable of enhancing a shift in direction of more sustainable eating habits, and assuring the product claimed quality. Findings about these effects are often contradictory and, if on one side labels are reported to be a reliable extrinsic cue of quality perception (Bernue, et al., 2003), on the other side ethical and sustainable claim may leads to a decrease in consumers’ taste inferences for certain categories of goods (van Doorn, et al., 2011). Furthermore, in the current food business market, as reported by Genovese et al., (2013), sustainability is taking root in corporate practices and related supply chains, because of the increased business accountability expected from stakeholders (Zhu, et al., 2008; Barcos, et al., 2013). Therefore, in the last decades, both at the national (e.g. in Sweden, France, UK, Germany, Taiwan, Korea, USA) and at the company level (e.g. Tesco, Boots, Walkers, Timberland, Casino etc.), numerous eco-friendly labels have been created and/or implemented (Dendler, 2014). As a result, the current eco-label index already lists 460 ecolabels in 197 countries, and 25 industry sectors, focusing on sustainability related issues (http://www.ecolabelindex.com//). According to several researches, the multitude and the high degree of diversity across all labels carrying product’s related sustainable information are both those factors which make difficult for consumers the utilization of such insights as a reliable standard to differentiate between dirty and green products and to evaluate the overall quality of the item (Van Amstel, et al., 2008; Lozano, et al., 2010; Schumacher, 2010).
Since eco-labelling systems that are actually employed within the market show a low level of understanding among consumers, as well as an high level of inefficiency especially for specific categories (Dendler, 2014; Gallastegui, 2002; Grunert, et al., 2014; Luchs, et al., 2010), as seen in figure 1, the study assumes that the application of a more accessible and understandable eco-friendly label (“Zero-Impact”) may increase the effectiveness of environmental information resulting in higher consumers’ overall quality perception, which in turn it is expected to boost the consumers’ purchasing intentions toward the labelled good.
Specifically for this paper, consumer’s overall quality perception has been defined as the opposite concept of objective product quality, which mainly refers to the actual technical excellence of the product that can be verified and measured (Monroe, et al., 1985), while this concept is mostly related with extrinsic cues of the product (such as provenience, CO2 emission, etc.).
For the reasons mentioned above, the paper assumes that the application of a multi-criteria scheme label, which encompasses product’s related global warming potential, primary energy use, water use, land and pesticide use (Vlaeminck, et al., 2014), could enhance consumer’s quality evaluation and, subsequently, consumers’ buying intentions toward labelled items (Bernue, et al., 2003; Graça, et al., 2015). Overall it is expected that the effect of a sustainable/ethical message will depend on whether values are mainly considered by consumers within the product category. A positive effect is expected when the benefits claimed by the label are consistent with those values that consumers usually associate with the products (Luchs, et al., 2010), becoming the search of quality on which consumers could rely on during shopping situations. In line with previous researches, it is specifically expected that consumers’ responses to products are strongly likely to differ across relative vice and virtue categories (Hui, et al., 2009; Milkman, et al., 2008; Mishra, et al., 2011; Okada, 2005). While for relative vice food, the label may undermine the consumers’ hedonic motivation to buy the item, for relative virtue category, environmental information may enhance the consumers’ inferences of quality and, in turn, their intentions to buy the item.
To sum up, the current research considers that the presence of an eco-friendly label may drive consumers’ buying intentions toward more sustainable consumption patterns, by triggering the overall quality perceptions toward less impactful goods, with an expected variation across different types of food.
3.2 The impact of “Zero-Impact” label’s presence on Overall Quality Perception
Although the definition of eco-friendly label relates most to a means to inform and persuade consumers towards consumption of more sustainable products, few scholars believe that in the current market, labelled information is becoming one central element for the product quality evaluation.
Prior studies have posited that consumers are increasingly paying attention to credence quality attribute, (Steenkamp, 1990), due to a growing concerns among society in regard of concepts as: food safety, healthiness, convenience, locality, traceability, ethicality, animal welfare, etc. (Corcoran, et al., 2001; Issanchou, 1996; Wandel, et al., 1997). Specifically, credence quality attribute has been defined as the good’s characteristics that cannot be determined with the usage of the product, because instead of being relates with the physical and experiential features of the item (e.g. tastiness, colour, etc.), these attributes are deeply rooted into the social and ethical aspects of the product and its related life cycle (Vermeir, et al., 2006; Becker, 2000). The research of Olson et al., (1972) reported that such information was found to be viewed as the dominant means for communicating to consumers the quality level of the product, and furthermore Becker (2000) demonstrates that when credence quality attributes are communicated throughout labelled information, the label acts as a trusted extrinsic cue, becoming the search of quality available at the time of shopping. For instance, it has been reported that traceability information is viewed as an indispensable tool for assuring consumers in regard to the product safety and quality standards (Verbeke, 2001).
Considering the reasoning above, as well as the features reported throughout the “Zero-Impact” label (carbon emissions, traceability information, energy, water, land and resources exploitations), it can be assumed that the application of this new eco-labelling systems have the potential to deliver more value to consumers (Bernues, et al., 2003; Hobbs, et al., 2005; Verbeke and Ward, 2005), by fulfilling their needs for credible and reliable information (Verbeke, 2001). However, as reported within existing literature, in order to evaluate consumers’ willingness to buy (or to pay) food product, the effect of sustainable and ethical clues may depend strongly on whether product category is take into account (Hui, et al., 2009; Milkman, et al., 2008; Mishra, et al., 2011; Van Doorn, et al., 2010).
According to these findings, the current theoretical framework supposes that the impact of sustainable and ethical labelled information on overall quality perception depends critically on the product type, in particular whether the product is vice (meat) or virtue (meat substitutes). Although these items are perfect alternatives of each other in terms of nutritional quality (Baroni, et al., 2007), usually they are perceived as really different by consumers under several perspectives, such as overall consumption evaluation, quality perception and ethical features (Hoek, et al., 2011).
Considering a “Zero-Impact” labelled meat food, the presence of ethical and sustainable product’s related information is expected to negatively affect overall consumers’ quality evaluation toward the product observed. Firstly, due the “wholesomeness” carried by the label, the amount of enjoyment and pleasure ascribed to meat consumption and vice food in general, may decrease. Indeed, it has been found that the consumption of meat is mostly associated with values such as: experiencing fun, amusement, fantasy, and sensory stimulation (Babin, et al., 1994), which characterizes more the consumption of vice food, as well as, high hedonic shopping motivation (Graça, et al., 2015). In addition, within existing literature several papers reported that exists an important relation between type of product, in term of associated values, and its related benefits claim type, such as Utilitarian Vs. Hedonic, Gentle Vs. Strong and also Vice Vs. Virtue (Lim, et al. 2008; Luchs, et al., 2010; Van Doorn, et al., 2010). In this perspective, the sustainability carried by the “Zero-Impact” label could become a liability within a category as vice food, in which hedonic and strength-related values (such as: fun, enjoyment, power, tastiness) are the most considered for evaluating products (Luchs, et al., 2010). In line with the reported findings:
H1(a): The presence of the “Zero-Impact” label negatively influences the consumer’s quality perception for relative vice products, such as meat.
On the contrary, for the virtue category (meat substitutes) it is expected a positive effect arising from the presence of ethical claim and sustainable information. If gentle-related values are the criteria on which consumers rely the most for making evaluation for a specific category of product, the “Zero-Impact” label could be an asset that results in an increased consumers preferences toward the product, which will be perceived as having more quality (Luchs, et al., 2010).
Therefore, contrarily to the meat condition, the congruity between product type and its utilitarian claim will lead to a greater consumer’s liking toward the goods:
H1(b): The presence of an eco-friendly label positively influences the consumer’s quality perception for relative virtue products, such as meat-substitutes.
3.3 The impact of a “Zero-Impact” label on consumers’ buying intentions for meat and meat substitutes
In order to investigate the potential effect originated by the exploitation of sustainable labelled information without considering the overall consumers’ quality perceptions, this model will analyse the consumer’s purchasing intentions for both less impactful products, as his/her implicit willingness to shift eating habits toward more sustainable behaviour. As reported in the literature section, sustainable behaviour is defined as a decision-making process that takes into account the consumers’ social responsibility, in addition to individual needs and wants (Meulenberg, 2003), and also that it is linked to personal values, such as universalism, benevolence, honesty, idealism, equality, freedom, and responsibility (Vermeir, et al., 2006).
According to several papers, the mere exposure to green products, such as looking a green product’s advertisement or consulting an eco-friendly label, can prime consumers and subsequently would activate norms of social responsibility, ethical conduct and an increase of corresponding behaviours (Mazar, et al., 2010). Priming effect is defined as the influence arising from the mere exposure to an image, word or sound and, although it has been demonstrated that it can exert a positive societal effect by inducing pro-social and ethical acts, it is important to consider that actual consumers purchasing decisions are embedded with their history of behaviours, which strongly influences future actions and decisions (Bargh, 2006). Numerous research suggest that preferences among alternatives can be affected systematically by consumers\’ prior actions (Dhar, et al., 1999; Novemsky, et al., 2005). In other words, it can be assumed that not all exposures have the same priming effect resulting in purchasing of the green product or acting morally; conversely other processes, relative with prior actions, such has licensing, can negate or even replace the priming effect (Monin, et al., 2001; Sachdeva, et al., 2009).
As an example, the process of moral licensing is defined as the context in which people are under the risk that their next action may be (or may be perceived) as morally dubious, thus individuals can derive confidence from their past moral behaviour, such that an impeccable track record increases their propensity to engage in otherwise suspect actions (Merritt, et al., 2010).
According to the process of moral licensing, as well as to the priming effect generated by the mere exposure to green products, it can be assumed that the sustainable traits of the “Zero-Impact” label may result in different consumers’ purchasing intentions across relative vice and virtue food categories. It has been demonstrated that meat substitutes represent the most ethical and prudent choice in terms of environmental sustainability attributes compared to meat, scoring higher on every eco-friendly dimensions (Baroni, et al., 2007; Carrigan, et al., 2001; Milkman, et al., 2008). Thus, it can be assumed that the purchasing and consumption of these goods are more likely to be associated with moral and ethical behavioural patterns, meaning that for these products the mere exposure to the label has the potentiality to enhance consumers’ pro-social behaviour. In line with these considerations:
H2(a): The presence of a “Zero-Impact” label will result in a higher level of consumers’ buying intentions for relative virtues food (meat substitutes), compared with the unlabelled product condition.
Conversely, the consumption of relative vice food, as meat product, represents a more self-interested action that is more likely to be associated with immoral or unethical acts. Moreover, it is assumed that the risk to appear immoral to others, leads consumers to behave in a subsequent positive action in order to restore or maintain the self-moral image. This process has been called compensation or cleansing (Blanken, et al., 2014; Mazar, et al., 2010; Merritt, et al., 2010).
In this perspective, the label will lead to moral licensing processes, which consequently will influence consumers to behave in a moral manner preferring the more sustainable good. Thus:
H2(b): The presence of a “Zero-Impact” label will result in a higher level of consumers’ buying intentions for relative vices food (meat), compared with the unlabelled product condition.

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