What motivates you to change your behavior? That’s what two UO professors, a current and former PhD student at the Lundquist College of Business, and Francesco Testa at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies wanted to find out—particularly as it relates to locally-sourced food. Their findings are published in the recent paper “Social Sustainability as Buying Local: Effects of Soft Policy, Meso-Level Actors, and Social Influences on Purchase Intentions” in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.
Professor of marketing and Judy and Hugh Oliphant Chair in Sports Business T. Bettina Cornwell, Lundquist Professor of Sustainable Management Mike Russo, former Lundquist College PhD Brandon Reich (now an assistant professor at Portland State University), current Lundquist PhD student Aaron McDonald, and Testa wanted to know how best to influence or change perceptions about buying locally-produced food among people whom may not already have a favorable impression of the practice.
Encouraging more people to make local food choices has a positive effect on the environment and the economy, and consumer choice has more power to do good in the world than consumers realize, according to Cornwell.
“Local consumption has a smaller carbon footprint,” Cornwell said.
In addition, these foods are healthier because they have been in the distribution system for a shorter period of time.
“The consumer behavior of the most developed countries influences so many things around the world including the natural environment,” Cornwell added.
To understand the factors influencing perceptions of local food, the paper’s authors looked at consumer behavior in both Italy and the United States and focused on “soft policies” implemented by meso-level actors. A “meso-level” actor is defined as a group or organization falling in between macro—the federal government, for example—and micro levels, or individual consumers. Amazon.com is an example of a meso-level actor.
In an example of the effect a meso-level actor can have on public consumption, the researchers noted that when Amazon.com eliminated “clamshell” packaging, it changed the consumption of hundreds of thousands of consumers. In other words, “nudging people” in one direction or another can often be more effective in changing behavior than sweeping legislation.
When it comes to food, the researchers believe promoting changes in food purchasing is an area where meso-level actors could similarly play a transformational role in public behavior.
In addition, because research shows that social norms messaging is the most effective way to activate a behavior—regardless of the individual’s preexisting attitude about the behavior in question—the researchers posited that meso-level actors could best influence attitudes about buying local food by adjusting their direct messaging to consumers on the subject.
In a non-food-related illustration of social norms messaging, the paper outlined how hotel messaging that states “The majority of guests reuse their towels” is more effective in influencing guest behavior than simply stating “Help save the environment.”
To test their hypothesis across national contexts, the researchers surveyed 316 Italian consumers and 186 U.S. consumers.
In study 1, residents of two central Italian regions were presented an advertisement featuring a basket of fresh produce. The respondents from a broad demographic range had been randomly assigned to one of three groups. Each group was presented a different message along with the image. The social norm category saw “Join the millions of Italians that buy local.” The local economy category saw “Buy local and support the economy of our territory.” The control group saw no accompanying text with their advertising imagery.
Results showed that the group shown the social norm message had an increase in both positive attitude toward local food and in intention to purchase local food compared with the control and the local economy groups.
In study 2, American participants were asked open-ended questions about how they defined local food. The vast majority responded along the lines of local food meaning food made or processed in the immediate area.
One week later, these same participants were asked to evaluate an ad promoting local food in grocery stores. Each piece of text accompanying the advertising shared a very similar tone to the text used in the Italian portion of the study.
After further analysis, findings where consistent with the Italian portion of the study: consumers showed an increased intention to buy local food with messaging that presented consuming local food as a social norm.
In other words, a little perceived peer pressure could go a long way in changing the views of those who might not place a high priority on locally-sourced food.
“Most people want to do good things and are happy to incorporate small changes in their lifestyle in order to feel good about contributing to the overall good,” Cornwell said. “If we can nudge those positive behaviors in the smallest way but at the same time in a ‘mass’ fashion, we can affect real change.”