When was the last time you had a meal outside home? As the trend of eating outside home continues to grow, the role of food service sector in encouraging environmentally friendly behavior in their customers is more significant than ever. In fact, some restaurants actively guide their customers to making more environmentally sustainable choices. Often this encouragement is closely related to issues like more responsible food options or decreasing food waste.

So, how are we being steered in to making these environmentally friendlier choices at restaurants? There are multiple ways of customer guidance, some very visible and others more discrete. For example, restaurants often engage in information provision and fill the restaurant environment with different informational signs advising customers about the sustainability of offered foods or the sustainability measures made in the restaurants. They are also required by law to inform customers about the nutritional content of the foods. Oftentimes the message of these different signs gets lost in the constant flood of information. Research shows that as popular as information provision is, it often fails to catch the attention of the customers and does not lead to actual behavior change.

Other customer guidance methods can be more inconspicuous and go fairly unnoticed by the customers because they target our automatic decision making processes. According to Nudge theory, made popular by Thaler and Sunstein with their book “Nudge”, we make hundreds of micro decisions every day and often our brain perform on autopilot. Nudging attempts to target those swift automatic decision making processes, and is sometimes used at restaurant environments to encourage people to choose certain food items or reduce food waste.

Did you know that when the salad table is situated before the main course line, you are more likely to take more vegetables on your plate?

And having the vegetarian option first at the self-service counter increases the chances of you choosing it? Or that when your plate size is smaller you are less likely to generate food waste? These are all classic examples of small but effective physical environment nudges, which do not restrict your choices but quietly nudges your behavior.

Why to nudge?

So why should communal food services use these customer guidance methods to influence our behavior and choices? Institutional catering, in particular, can potentially reach high number of people and impact their food choices for the better of their health and that of the environment. In Finland, we have a long tradition of communal food services, as on estimate one third of Finnish people use them on a daily basis. In the past, this has enabled governmental power to steer people to eat healthier; it is not a coincidence that all the communal food services offer food that follows certain nutritional guidelines. Following the same principle, the sustainability of food has also become increasingly important for institutional catering.

Changing things in your own kitchen, too?

The impact of guiding customers towards environmentally friendlier choices does not just remain at restaurant level. The adopted choices and changes in behavior there can lead to potential changes in private kitchens as well. Our personal consumption practices and patterns are in key role when considering the sustainability of food domain. As we get closer and closer to year 2035, the year Finland aims to be carbon neutral, we should not leave any stone turned to achieve that goal. Guiding customer choices in the food service sector is an effective way to achieve significant sustainability impacts on a larger scale, so nudge away!


Tytti Pakarinen

Tytti Pakarinen studies Environmental Change and Global Sustainability at the University of Helsinki and wrote her Master’s thesis on food service sector’s environmental sustainability measures and customer guidance methods.


References and further reading

Filimonau, V., & Krivcova, M. (2017). Restaurant menu design and more responsible consumer food choice: An exploratory study of managerial perceptions. Journal of cleaner production, 143, 516-527.

Pakarinen, T. (2019). Guiding customers towards more environmentally sustainable choices in the food service sector – Qualitative case study of UniCafe restaurants (master’s thesis). University of Helsinki.

Roos, E., Sarlio-Lähteenkorva, S., & Lallukka, T. (2004). Having lunch at a staff canteen is associated with recommended food habits. Public health nutrition, 7(1), 53-61.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Penguin.

Verplanken, B., & Wood, W. (2006). Interventions to break and create consumer habits. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 25(1), 90-103.

VRN. (2014). Terveyttä ruoasta. Suomalaiset ravitsemussuositukset.

Wahlen, S., Heiskanen, E., & Aalto, K. (2012). Endorsing sustainable food consumption: Prospects from public catering. Journal of Consumer Policy, 35(1), 7-21.

Photo by: Oleksandr Pidvalnyi from Pexels

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