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Climate Education for the Everyday Eater: 5 Questions with Just Salad

Author: Apeel Team

As part of our virtual conversation series, Good Bites, we’ve been talking to the food industry’s sustainability change makers to get their takes on all the decisions we can be making as brands and as individuals to fight climate change. 

One of the inspiring brands we spoke with recently is the healthy fast-casual restaurant chain, Just Salad. Sandra Noonan, their Chief Sustainability Officer, joined us along with Impossible Foods to discuss the link between food consumption, food waste, and the climate and how this isn’t as widely known among the mass consumer audience as it could be. 

We wanted to know more about how Sandra and Just Salad think about bringing this education to their customers. 

You can watch the whole Good Bites conversation with Sandra and Rebekah from Impossible Foods on our website or at the bottom of this blog post.

  1. In the fast casual category, Just Salad is an early mover in climate data. For example, the ‘Climatarian’ menu you launched in September has gotten a lot of attention. Can you talk about learnings the team had in figuring out how to present that information in a way that consumers understand and engage with?

SANDRA: We do feel that labels have power. There is research that shows consumers do shift their purchasing behavior when presented with the climate label: A survey of 10,000 consumers from the Carbon Trust shows that there's widespread support for carbon labels. That kind of data has informed our decision to actually carbon label our menu. We recognize that a kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent on a menu item is very unfamiliar to people. And one of the key insights and learnings early on as we developed our carbon labeling scheme was that we have to contextualize this so people can wrap their heads around this information.

In the nineties, when the nutrition label came out, we all started getting familiar with calories and other information on the nutrition label. That was a moment of learning for the consumer. We felt there was potential to achieve the same level of familiarity with the carbon label as there is now with the nutrition label. The context is absolutely key. When you go on the Just Salad menu online, you'll see a menu item, it's carbon footprint compared to that of a quarter-pound beef patty as a reference food that everyone knows. That’s one way in which we help the customer immediately get what the carbon footprint of a salad is versus something else.

  1. In being an early mover, what kind of feedback have you gotten from consumers? Surely there are some consumers that truly understand, and some that maybe are not as clear. 

SANDRA: The response has been overwhelmingly along the lines of “This is awesome.” That is the off-the-cuff reaction we get on social media, which is meaningful and helpful.

But what we really want to understand, and what we're in the midst of understanding is, does it actually shift behavior? Does a carbon label cause the individual to shift from a higher carbon footprint item to a lower one? The academic community immediately jumped in to say, “Could we study this?”. We’ve partnered with three universities on developing a behavioral study that will help us quantify the exact impact of the labels.

We've also taken a lot of cues from what European countries have done because they’ve been ahead of the game on carbon labeling. We've looked at Max Burger's successful case study. But there have been other cases where carbon labeling in the EU was abandoned early on because it didn't seem to resonate. That pushed us to say, “We have to raise the bar and push this even further.”

Our Climatarian menu is like a cognitive shortcut for people who don't want to sit there and puzzle over a kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent. Instead, you can click on an item and we can tell you it’s one of our lowest emissions items.

  1. The timing of this menu launch is really interesting. With COVID, a lot of this is more digital and trackable. Do you have any interesting insights or engagement metrics around the menu since it's been more mobile or digital?

SANDRA: Yes! Environmental messaging has an impact and we see it. A week after the launch of the Climatarian menu and the carbon labels, sales of those Climatarian items increased 130%.

That bump was clearly driven by the marketing and the messaging, as well as the launch of these new labels. After that, we've seen a double digit bump in sales of Climatarian labeled items. And we intend to continue analyzing over a longer period to tease out the carbon labels effect versus a myriad of other factors. It's going to be a long process, but we're committed to figuring it out.

  1. From a product offering perspective, how do you look at sourcing or new options that actually are creating a better climate profile? Do you guys have filters or strategies? 

SANDRA: We take a few approaches. When we committed to carbon labels, we also publicly committed to launching a vegan cheese within the next couple years. That was inspired by our findings from the carbon labeling exercise. We are using our ranking of carbon labels to say, “Wow, maybe we should focus more on dairy.” That's just like one example of how we're using those insights to source more responsibly and be more climate conscious.

  1. From your experience, what are the major challenges facing long-lasting behavior change for the adoption of sustainable food choices?

SANDRA: From my experience, it's convenience and a sense of powerlessness. I'll start with the second. The Yale Center on Climate Change Communication has asked Americans about their feelings about climate change. And 51% of Americans said they felt helpless to do anything about it. I think a feeling of powerlessness is a major obstacle to adopting climate conscious behaviors that meaningfully reduce climate change. We reject that notion. And then there’s convenience: I think that’s pretty self explanatory, but you have to make it easy. 

To check out the entire conversation with Impossible Foods and Just Salad, check out this video: