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Consumers underestimate the emissions associated with food but are aided by labels

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Abstract and Figures

Food production is a major cause of energy use and GHG emissions, and therefore diet change is an important behavioural strategy for reducing associated environmental impacts. However, a severe obstacle to diet change may be consumers’ underestimation of the environmental impacts of different types of food. Here we show that energy consumption and GHG emission estimates are significantly underestimated for foods, suggesting a possible blind spot suitable for intervention. In a second study, we find that providing consumers with information regarding the GHG emissions associated with the life cycle of food, presented in terms of a familiar reference unit (light-bulb minutes), shifts their actual purchase choices away from higher-emission options. Thus, although consumers’ poor understanding of the food system is a barrier to reducing energy use and GHG emissions, it also represents a promising area for simple interventions such as a well-designed carbon label.
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1UTS Business School, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, New South Wales, Australia. 2Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, Durham, NC,
USA. 3Duke University School of Law, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. 4Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.
There is a widespread scientific consensus regarding the
urgency to reduce GHG emissions1, and on the need to study
alternative interventions to do so. Much research has empha-
sized technological solutions such as greater energy efficiency and
increased use of renewable sources of energy2. More recently, it has
been recognized that diet change is also a potential solution worth
exploring35. Economic analysis has examined the virtues of mar-
ket-based mechanisms to influence demand, such as a carbon tax
that increases prices in line with social costs6. Increasingly, however,
social scientists have turned their attention to possible behavioural
interventions to influence demand7. For example, social psychologi-
cal research on social norms shows their effectiveness in producing
behaviour change in some contexts8,9. However, social norms are
problematic when the desired behaviour is rare10. Another interven-
tion approach is to ‘boost’ consumer decision-making by providing
relevant skills, knowledge and decision tools11. The efficacy of such
boosts requires first understanding the relevant knowledge gaps.
Attempts to modify behaviour typically presume that con-
sumers recognize the connection between their acts and the
consequences for energy consumption and GHG emissions12,13.
However, there is a growing body of research demonstrating
that consumers are often unaware or misinformed. For example,
Attari, et al.14 found that people had a rudimentary understanding
of the relative energy use of different electrical household appli-
ances (henceforth, appliances) and activities. On average, people
correctly recognized that refrigerators used more electricity than
light bulbs, but were insensitive to the true difference between
relatively high- and low-emitting appliances.
Research suggests that the food system contributes 19%–29%
of global GHG emissions15, which is similar to emissions from
US household electricity use16. Many factors combine to produce
such considerable emissions. Agriculture is highly industrialized.
Refrigeration and transportation tend to depend heavily on fos-
sil fuels. Natural gas is a key input in the manufacture of fertil-
izer. Cattle raised for beef and dairy products are major sources
of methane. Moreover, the process of raising meat is inherently
inefficient: fertilizer is used to grow feedstock, but only a small
portion of the feed becomes animal protein; the rest becomes
manure and methane. Thus, it takes 38 kg of plant-based protein
inputs to produce 1 kg of edible beef17. Finally, in many parts of
the world, burning forests to create grazing and agricultural land
also emits GHG emissions. A significant reduction in GHG emis-
sions from food could be achieved by changing consumers’ diet; in
particular, by moving toward more vegetarian or vegan meals18,19.
Even changing the type of meat consumed could have a large ben-
eficial environmental impact20.
Existing research, which typically asks consumers via survey
to indicate knowledge or agreement with facts about the environ-
mental impact of food, suggests that consumer awareness of the
environmental impact of meat production is low2124. Importantly,
however, those who believe that reducing meat consumption effec-
tively reduces GHG emissions are much more likely to intend to
reduce eating meat22,25.
Understanding consumersʼ perceptions of energy consump-
tion and GHG emissions of individual food items in a way similar
to Attari et al.14 is important because it can inform the design of
information interventions to help consumers understand the true
impact of their behaviours. Experimental studies investigating sim-
ple interventions to increase pro-environmental food consumption
behaviour have yielded only modest results26. Therefore, additional
research that identifies effective ‘boosts’ is needed.
One of the most straightforward ways to attempt to influence
food choice is through labels27. For example, a carbon label com-
municates information about the total amount of GHG emissions
from within a defined supply chain (for example, from cradle
to grave). Carbon labels provide information to consumers that
can be factored into purchase choices and also exert pressure on
manufacturers and retailers to provide consumers with lower-
emission options28.
The research associated with environmental labels on foods
is mixed. Some research suggests that consumers desire carbon
labels29,30. However, other research suggests that consumers barely
use environmental labels when making food choices31. Still other
research indicates that environmental labels can move consumption
Consumers underestimate the emissions
associated with food but are aided by labels
AdrianR.Camilleri 1*, RichardP.Larrick2, ShajutiHossain3 and DaliaPatino-Echeverri4
Food production is a major cause of energy use and GHG emissions, and therefore diet change is an important behavioural
strategy for reducing associated environmental impacts. However, a severe obstacle to diet change may be consumers’ under-
estimation of the environmental impacts of different types of food. Here we show that energy consumption and GHG emission
estimates are significantly underestimated for foods, suggesting a possible blind spot suitable for intervention. In a second
study, we find that providing consumers with information regarding the GHG emissions associated with the life cycle of food,
presented in terms of a familiar reference unit (light-bulb minutes), shifts their actual purchase choices away from higher-
emission options. Thus, although consumers’ poor understanding of the food system is a barrier to reducing energy use and
GHG emissions, it also represents a promising area for simple interventions such as a well-designed carbon label.
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... Indeed, people overestimate the energy used in low-energy activities (e.g., lower wattage bulbs), but greatly underestimate energy used in high-energy activities 15 (e.g., room instead of a central air conditioner). Similarly, people underestimate the mitigation potential of some high-impact behaviors (e.g., reducing air transport) and overestimate some low-impact behaviors 14,16,17 (e.g., recycling). Moreover, Holmgren et al. 18 found evidence of a negative footprint illusion related to the construction of green housing, and Wynes et al. 19 found that people have a low level of carbon numeracy. ...
... Hence, our findings complement the literature suggesting the existence of an impact neglect in valuation judgments of sustainable behaviors. [14][15][16]18,19 We also extend the current understanding by showing how affective associations with mitigative behaviors from various consumption domains are related to perceived impact and adoption of these behaviors. ...
... Businesses with environmental initiatives are able to gain the trust and loyalty of likeminded consumers. If retailers wish to acquire such customers, they should pay attention to sustainability (when selecting the assortment, in production, packaging, sales, transport and, finally, in the choice of communication strategy) [98][99][100][101][102][103]. The popularity of online shopping continues to grow, which presents retailers with a unique opportunity to implement sustainability initiatives into their businesses. ...
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Environmental awareness among consumers is on the rise as they are starting to prefer sustainable products and services. The aim of this research was to examine the relationships between consumer behavior when shopping online for green products and the factors that influence it from the point of view of sustainability. Primary data were obtained using a questionnaire survey and subsequently processed using descriptive analysis, confirmatory factor analysis and structural equation modeling. The obtained research results showed that Digitization in Green Marketing has a significant impact on Environmental Attitude, and that aspects like Environmental Attitude, Environmental Oriented Lifestyle, Willingness to Pay for Green Products and Subjective Norms have a significant impact on Environmental Purchasing Behavior. Moreover, the study found that the factors Environmental Oriented Lifestyle, Willingness to Pay for Green Products, Subjective Norms and Environmental Purchasing Behavior have a significant impact on Future Purchase Intention. The research results can help online retailers in planning and implementing green marketing strategies not only in sales but also in other business processes. In order to stay competitive, businesses should be able to respond promptly to changes in consumer behavior trends, while it is undeniable that the aspect of sustainability plays an increasingly important role here.
... Unlike messages targeting oneself, previous research frequently uses abstract messages when targeting the environment 17,18,39,44,60,71 . This choice is driven by the challenge individuals face in quantifying environmental impacts (e.g., emissions in t CO 2 , or energy consumption in MWh) or in relating to the corresponding numerical values [72][73][74] . Consequently, we adopt an abstract presentation as this is widely used in prior literature. ...
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Green technologies, such as solar panels, foster the use of clean energy, yet often involve large-scale investments. Hence, adoption by retail consumers has been a key barrier. Here, we show that message framing can significantly increase customers’ serious commitment to adopting solar panels by providing empirical evidence in the field from a large-scale randomized controlled trial with a nationwide online retailer in the Netherlands (N = 26,873 participants). We design four messages aimed at promoting the purchase behavior of solar panel installations. Our messages present outcomes for oneself or for the environment and highlight cost savings versus earnings (for oneself) or reducing emissions versus generating green electricity (for the environment). Across all messages, we observe a higher rate of customers committing to solar panels compared to the baseline. However, the framing in terms of financial savings for oneself was by far the most effective, resulting in a 40% higher level of commitment than the baseline and 30% higher than the average of the other three messages, which were not significantly different in effect from each other. Our results show that message framing is cost-efficient and scalable among retail consumers to promote large-scale investments in green technologies and thus clean energy.
... Consumers' climate awareness and the impact of the pneumonia epidemic have directly prompted green supply chain enterprises to implement targeted measures (Sarti et al., 2018;Camilleri et al., 2019). Many enterprises and supply chain members have focused on low-carbon transformation to help brands upgrade their green industry chain and seize the first opportunity for green and low-carbon development. ...
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Introduction: Under the dual opportunities of low-carbon consumption preference and online consumption platforms, vendors’ low-carbon advertising incursions provide opportunities for decarbonization and market position enhancement, as well as further research on the value of low-carbon advertising. This study aims to explore the contractual choices of green vendors’ online channels participating in low-carbon advertising competition under the low-carbon goodwill effect, and to simulate and evaluate the contractual choices of supply chain members. Methods: Using differential games, through the innovative application of the traditional low-carbon goodwill model and the introduction of the low-carbon advertising competition intensity coefficient, we design one-way and two-way cost-sharing contracts under low-carbon competition, coordinate the vicious competition in the supply chain, and provide contractual choices for supply chain participants. Results and discussion: Under the low-carbon advertising competition decision, the manufacturer has an absolute low-carbon market advantage, but the interests of all supply chain members are weakened, and interestingly, the manufacturer, who dominates the market, is the facilitator of the contractual agreement. Second, well-designed pacts can provide manufacturers and traders with more options for low-carbon strategies. Although both one-way and two-way cost-sharing pacts can generate Pareto gains for the supply chain and its members in advertising competition, two-way cost-sharing pacts are superior to one-way pacts in terms of coordination advantages. In addition, an important finding is that greater profit growth can be achieved through contractual cooperation in low-intensity advertising competition. Thus, moderate competition is desirable, while excessive competition can harm the supply chain system. Manufacturers should actively urge retailers to cooperate in order to optimize profits and establish long-term stable partnerships between upstream and downstream firms in green supply chains.
... Apparently similar packaged products may have markedly different environmental impacts due to different ingredients used or technologies applied during manufacturing (Poore and Nemecek, 2018). Product-specific GHGe values in conjunction with on-pack GHGe labelling would not only enable consumers to make food choices informed by environmental sustainability (Camilleri et al., 2019;Vandenbergh et al., 2011), but might also drive producers, manufacturers and retailers towards actions that reduce their environmental impact (Willett et al., 2019;Potter et al., 2021;Clark et al., 2022). ...
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We use an incentive-compatible experimental online supermarket to test the role of commitment and badges in reducing the carbon footprint of grocery shopping. In the experiment, some participants had the opportunity to voluntarily commit to a low carbon footprint basket before their online grocery shopping; the commitment was forced upon other participants. We also study the impact of an online badge as a soft reward for the achievement of a low carbon footprint basket. Participants from the general population shopped over two weeks, with the experimental stimuli only in week 2; and received their shopping baskets and any unspent budget. Results indicate that requesting a commitment prior to entering the store leads to a reduction in carbon footprint of 9–12%. When the commitment is voluntary, reductions are driven by consumers who accept the commitment. Commitments also reduced the consumption of fats and, for forced commitments, that of salt by 18%. Badges did not significantly impact consumer behaviour. Commitment mechanisms, either forced or voluntary, appear effective in motivating an environmental goal and search for low-carbon options, particularly in those accepting the commitment.
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As climate change concerns rise, people increasingly seek to behave and consume sustainably. Doing so requires understanding which behaviors matter most, and which firms and industries emit the least. In this paper, we explore whether people are knowledgeable enough to make choices that align with their sustainability goals. Across five studies, we (1) demonstrate that individuals’ climate-related estimates are largely inaccurate, (2) provide evidence that this misestimation results from a cognitive process of attribute substitution, and (3) identify conditions that do (and do not) moderate estimation accuracy. These findings have important implications not only for individuals who desire to minimize their emissions, but for firm and industry reputations, investments, regulatory oversight, and understanding of greenwashing. Overall, our findings suggest that to the extent that individual action can be impactful, we should intervene with accessible, easily understandable information that highlights the causal impact of consumption in order to facilitate this action.
Carbon emissions associated with individual choices are difficult to conceptualize and seldom considered in daily decision making. We examine the impact of personalized feedback on carbon emissions on intended climate action. In a pre-registered experiment (N = 790), participants reported their consumption in 2019 and received personalized feedback on carbon emissions and recommendations for reduction in the feedback condition, or no feedback in the control condition. Subsequently, all participants indicated their consumption intentions in 2023, which was one year from the year the experiment was conducted. After receiving feedback, participants showed a significant emission reduction of 1.42tCO2e (− 12.60%) per capita between 2019 and 2023, whereas those in the control condition increased their emissions by 0.05tCO2e (+ 0.045%). Importantly, there was no impact on intentions to engage in civic climate action. Civic climate intentions were instead associated with eco-guilt and climate concerns. These findings suggest personalized feedback has the potential to reduce carbon emissions without impacting civic climate intentions, providing implications for strategies to encourage climate action.
Experiment Findings
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Sustainable product attributes can be condensed into sustainability cues such as labels and tags. These sustainability cues can be visually displayed in online markets to help consumers understand product sustainability. However, knowledge of the effectiveness of labels and other types of sustainability cues in promoting sustainable consumer behavior, especially for electronic products, is limited. Using an online choice experiment (n = 346), this study examined the effectiveness of five different sustainability cues (sustainability labels, a multi-level Eco Score, a CO2 Score, and two types of sustainability tags). We found that all sustainability cues tested increased the choice of sustainable products compared with the control group. The Eco Score has the largest effect on increasing sustainable purchase decisions, followed by sustainability tags and the CO2 Score. The positive effect of conventional sustainability labeling was not statistically significant. The results provide empirical evidence for the effectiveness of sustainability cues in promoting more sustainable consumption decisions for electronic products. Online marketers are encouraged to use integrated sustainability labeling schemes, such as the Eco Score, carbon labeling, and easy-to-understand sustainability tags, to promote more sustainable product choices in digital market environments. In addition, this study encourages policymakers to consider introducing an Eco Score label for consumer electronics.
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In recent years, policy makers worldwide have begun to acknowledge the potential value of insights from psychology and behavioral economics into how people make decisions. These insights can inform the design of nonregulatory and nonmonetary policy interventions—as well as more traditional fiscal and coercive measures. To date, much of the discussion of behaviorally informed approaches has emphasized “nudges,” that is, interventions designed to steer people in a particular direction while preserving their freedom of choice. Yet behavioral science also provides support for a distinct kind of nonfiscal and noncoercive intervention, namely, “boosts.” The objective of boosts is to foster people’s competence to make their own choices—that is, to exercise their own agency. Building on this distinction, we further elaborate on how boosts are conceptually distinct from nudges: The two kinds of interventions differ with respect to (a) their immediate intervention targets, (b) their roots in different research programs, (c) the causal pathways through which they affect behavior, (d) their assumptions about human cognitive architecture, (e) the reversibility of their effects, (f) their programmatic ambitions, and (g) their normative implications. We discuss each of these dimensions, provide an initial taxonomy of boosts, and address some possible misconceptions.
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Public understanding of the water system is vital in confronting contemporary water challenges, as public support is necessary for implementing measures to address shortages and repair infrastructure. In this study, university student participants (N = 457) were asked to draw diagrams illustrating how water reaches the tap in an average home in the U.S. and is then returned to the natural environment. We also conducted an expert elicitation (N = 15) to create a simplified, accurate diagram by which to code each student drawing. Results showed major gaps in understanding, where 29% of the student participants did not draw a water treatment plant, 64% did not draw a wastewater treatment plant, and 1 in 5 participants depicted untreated wastewater returning to the natural environment. For the majority of non-environmental students, the water system stops at the home. These gaps reveal a critical area for public environmental education efforts.
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Every attribute can be expressed in multiple ways. For example, car fuel economy can be expressed as fuel efficiency (“miles per gallon”), fuel cost in dollars, or tons of greenhouse gases emitted. Each expression, or “translation,” highlights a different aspect of the same attribute. We describe a new mechanism whereby translated attributes can serve as decision “signposts” because they (1) activate otherwise dormant objectives, such as proenvironmental values and goals, and (2) direct the person toward the option that best achieves the activated objective. Across three experiments, we provide evidence for the occurrence of such signpost effects as well as the underlying psychological mechanism. We demonstrate that expressing an attribute such as fuel economy in terms of multiple translations can increase preference for the option that is better aligned with objectives congruent with this attribute (e.g., the more fuel-efficient car for those with proenvironmental attitudes), even when the new information is derivable from other known attributes. We discuss how using translated attributes appropriately can help align a person’s choices with their personal objectives. The online appendix is available at This paper was accepted by Yuval Rottenstreich, judgment and decision making.
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Feeding a growing population while minimizing environmental degradation is a global challenge requiring thoroughly rethinking food production and consumption. Dietary choices control food availability and natural resource demands. In particular, reducing or avoiding consumption of low production efficiency animal-based products can spare resources that can then yield more food. In quantifying the potential food gains of specific dietary shifts, most earlier research focused on calories, with less attention to other important nutrients, notably protein. Moreover, despite the well-known environmental burdens of livestock, only a handful of national level feed-to-food conversion efficiency estimates of dairy, beef, poultry, pork, and eggs exist. Yet such high level estimates are essential for reducing diet related environmental impacts and identifying optimal food gain paths. Here we quantify caloric and protein conversion efficiencies for US livestock categories. We then use these efficiencies to calculate the food availability gains expected from replacing beef in the US diet with poultry, a more efficient meat, and a plant-based alternative. Averaged over all categories, caloric and protein efficiencies are 7%–8%. At 3% in both metrics, beef is by far the least efficient. We find that reallocating the agricultural land used for beef feed to poultry feed production can meet the caloric and protein demands of ≈120 and ≈140 million additional people consuming the mean American diet, respectively, roughly 40% of current US population.
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The consensus that humans are causing recent global warming is shared by 90%–100% of publishing climate scientists according to six independent studies by co-authors of this paper. Those results are consistent with the 97% consensus reported by Cook et al (Environ. Res. Lett. 8 024024) based on 11 944 abstracts of research papers, of which 4014 took a position on the cause of recent global warming. A survey of authors of those papers (N = 2412 papers) also supported a 97% consensus. Tol (2016 Environ. Res. Lett. 11 048001) comes to a different conclusion using results from surveys of non-experts such as economic geologists and a self-selected group of those who reject the consensus. We demonstrate that this outcome is not unexpected because the level of consensus correlates with expertise in climate science. At one point, Tol also reduces the apparent consensus by assuming that abstracts that do not explicitly state the cause of global warming ('no position') represent non-endorsement, an approach that if applied elsewhere would reject consensus on well-established theories such as plate tectonics. We examine the available studies and conclude that the finding of 97% consensus in published climate research is robust and consistent with other surveys of climate scientists and peer-reviewed studies.
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Significance The food system is responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions while unhealthy diets and high body weight are among the greatest contributors to premature mortality. Our study provides a comparative analysis of the health and climate change benefits of global dietary changes for all major world regions. We project that health and climate change benefits will both be greater the lower the fraction of animal-sourced foods in our diets. Three quarters of all benefits occur in developing countries although the per capita impacts of dietary change would be greatest in developed countries. The monetized value of health improvements could be comparable with, and possibly larger than, the environmental benefits of the avoided damages from climate change.
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Consumers are often poorly informed about the energy consumed by different technologies and products. Traditionally, consumers have been provided with limited and flawed energy metrics, such as miles per gallon, to quantify energy use. We propose four principles for designing better energy metrics. Better measurements would describe the amount of energy consumed by a device or activity, not its energy efficiency; relate that information to important objectives, such as reducing costs or environmental impacts; use relative comparisons to put energy consumption in context; and provide information on expanded scales. We review insights from psychology underlying the recommendations and the empirical evidence supporting their effectiveness. These interventions should be attractive to a broad political spectrum because they are low cost and designed to improve consumer decisionmaking.
Background Our daily food choices have a huge impact on the environment. Production of meat has a much larger impact compared with the production of vegetable-based proteins. In order to create a food production and supply system that is more sustainable and environmentally friendly, food consumption behaviour needs to change. A reduction of meat intake is necessary. The introduction of alternative protein sources (e.g., insects or cultured meat) might be one possibility to replace meat. Scope and approach The present systematic review identified 38 articles to answer the following three research questions: 1) Are consumers aware that meat consumption has a large environmental impact? 2) Are consumers willing to reduce meat consumption or substitute meat with an alternative? 3) Are consumers willing to accept meat substitutes and alternative proteins, such as insects or cultured meat? Key findings and conclusion Consumer awareness of the environmental impact of meat production is surprisingly low. This is true for consumers in various European countries. Likewise, willingness to change meat consumption behaviour in terms of reducing or substituting meat (e.g., by eating insects or meat substitutes) is low as well. How people can be motivated to decrease their meat consumption behaviour has been underexplored. In particular, experimental studies are lacking and further investigations should focus on strategies (e.g., nudging interventions) that might help to motivate pro-environmentally friendly meat consumption behaviour. Moreover, population-based studies are scarce, and we need more in-depth studies on the factors that increase people’s willingness to reduce or to substitute meat consumption.
This paper presents the results of a systematic literature review of greenhouse gas emissions for different food categories from life cycle assessment (LCA) studies, to enable streamline calculations that could inform dietary choice. The motivation for completing the paper was the inadequate synthesis of food greenhouse gas emissions available in the public domain. The paper reviewed 369 published studies that provided 1,718 global warming potential (GWP) values for 168 varieties of fresh produce. A meta-analysis of the LCA studies was completed for the following categories: fresh vegetables (root vegetables, brassica, leaves and stems); fresh fruits, (pepo, hesperidium, true berries, pomes, aggregates fruits and drupes); staples (grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and rice); dairy (almond/coconut milk, soy milk, dairy milk, butter and cheese); non-ruminant livestock (chicken, fish, pork); and ruminant livestock (lamb and beef). The meta-analysis indicates a clear greenhouse gas hierarchy emerging across the food categories, with grains, fruit and vegetables having the lowest impact and meat from ruminants having the highest impact. The meta-analysis presents the median, mean, standard deviation, upper and lower quartile, minimum and maximum results for each food category. The resultant data enables streamline calculations of the global warming potential of human diets, and is illustrated by a short case study of an Australian family’s weekly shop. The database is provided in the Appendix as a resource for practitioners. The paper concludes with recommendations for future LCA studies to focus upon with respect to content and approach