How Your Buffet Game Could Fix the Food Industry

The Better Buying Lab is working with major food-services companies to figure out how sustainability measures can scale.
(Photo: Gabe Souza/‘Portland Press Herald’ via Getty Images)
Sep 19, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

It’s a question I’ve asked myself when I hit snooze before a prework jog, forget to soak the dried beans for homemade hummus, or ball up a fitted sheet willy-nilly because I don’t know the right way to fold it: Why, why, why can it be so hard to do the things you want to do?

The World Resources Institute’s Better Buying Lab makes it its business to see good intentions and positive decisions line up. But it’s less concerned with my wrinkled linens than with the corporate world. Take this stat: In 2014, a study showed 77 percent of Americans considered sustainability an important factor when shopping for their families. “That’s a big opportunity” for businesses, said Daniel Vennard, director of the Better Buying Lab. “More people want to eat sustainably. How do you actually make that happen?”

It’s a question his team is trying to answer by bringing together players in the food industry and working with experts in consumer research, behavioral economics, and marketing strategy in an effort to help close the 70 percent “food gap” between the food available today and anticipated demand in 2050. In September, Sodexo, a multinational food-services company, joined existing Better Buying Lab partners, including Google and Hilton Worldwide, to serve as a scalable testing ground for the innovations that come out of the lab.

“We’re pretty informed about how to meet people’s needs,” said Rachel Sylvan, a director in the office of sustainability at Sodexo. The company provides meals for private sector companies as well as schools, hospitals, military bases, and correctional facilities. But learning alongside other companies how consumers make choices in the cafeteria—specifically around plant-based foods—is “like a new lens” on the business, she said.

Here’s why the closer look is necessary: We know that beef consumes more land and water resources and generates more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of protein than any other food. We also know that if the average American cut her consumption of animal-based protein in half, she would decrease the land-use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with her diet by 43 to 45 percent. Multiply that by 2 billion of the world’s high consumers of protein, and we’d free up 1.5 billion acres of agricultural land—about twice the size of India. But there’s a gap between information and action. So how do you get a well-intentioned burger lover to opt for a Buddha bowl at lunch?

In its report Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future, the Better Buying Lab reviewed piles of academic literature to understand how and why people make the choices they do around food. We decide based on habit (our favorite brand of cookie), what we see (the eye-level soft drink or the aisle-cap cereal on sale), and what we remember—often from advertising campaigns (“ ‘Got milk?’ Oh yeah, I better get some”).

The researchers also examined campaigns that had disrupted these patterns and identified why they were successful. When a shift occurred, the change had been minimized, an experience had been replicated (Just Mayo, for example, is just like mayo), there was an alluring new benefit, or it was cheaper. Sometimes the shift helped meet a consumer’s “key need” or made a previous choice socially unacceptable.

In the United Kingdom, for example, brands like Happy Eggs helped free-range eggs capture a majority of the egg market, despite costing 30 to 50 percent more than conventional eggs; the “Happy hens lay tasty eggs” tagline reinforced consumer belief that free-range eggs taste better. Then, when celebrity chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver both highlighted the problems with conventional chicken farms in high-profile campaigns, sales of free-range poultry increased by 35 percent.

With Sodexo and other partners, the Better Buying Lab might test how placement of plant-based foods on a buffet line affects consumption, for example. Researchers believe putting them first in line generates higher consumption—but what about in real life, in the dining hall, on Taco Tuesday? Or does the language in a dish’s description correlate to who eats it? The words “vegetarian” and “healthy” can be double-edged swords, Vennard said.

With red meat, in particular, there’s an interesting societal norm to disturb.

“There are really powerful social norms around how men should eat meat,” Vennard said. “If a man eats steak, he’s powerful and manly.” Just eating vegetables? That’s lady stuff.

What worked for the beauty industry could work for veggies, he added. Buying moisturizer 15 years ago? That was lady stuff too. Now, drugstore aisles and upmarket men’s boutiques have sections devoted to sleek bottles in primary colors and sedate gray fonts. The $21 billion male beauty industry plays by a rule of psychology: Make a dude feel emasculated, and it’s game over.

It could even work for broccoli. A fake advertising campaign for broccoli created for The New York Times by agency Victors and Spoils touted the vegetable’s appeal as “43% less pretentious than kale” and the kind of “alpha vegetable” a strong, manly hand could offer to another dude as a “broquet.”

For the Better Buying Lab, having partners like Sodexo and Google sharing information as they experiment in the cafeteria line might provide a fast track to seeing what works—whether it’s broquets of broccoli or a subtly reshuffled lineup of chaffing dishes. “We’re hoping it’s going to be a massive accelerator for the food industry,” Vennard said.

Even if it’s willing to experiment with what it offers and how, Sodexo believes in surrounding people with a full range of choices, according to Sylvan. “If people aren’t happy, they aren’t going to come back,” she said, “and that’s not a sustainable business model.”