When you order a burger, you usually expect to receive a meat patty – but Burger King Austria has set out to change that. In July 2022, the company launched a campaign called ‘Normal or with meat?’, making plant-based burgers the default option on its menus. The fast-food chain now has a plant-based version of almost every item and customers have to explicitly say if they would prefer the meat-based version.
In the United States, coffee chain Blue Bottle has made a similar shift. In 2021, it tested an oat-milk default at its West Coast locations, so if customers order a latte without specifying a milk preference, it’s made with oat milk rather than cow’s milk. Based on the overwhelmingly positive results, Blue Bottle has expanded its oat milk default nationwide.
These food giants are posing a question to the public: ‘How can we define a new normal?’
As the climate crisis continues to worsen, this shift towards plant-based defaults is an attempt to address it. Approximately one-third of demand-side greenhouse-gas emissions are related to food consumption and several studies show dietary changes will be critical if we are to stand any chance of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Consuming less animal protein (and so reducing its production) is essential, as the average climate impacts of livestock are significantly higher than those of plant-based alternatives.
But food choices are not easily changed. What we eat is embedded in social and cultural contexts. Especially in affluent societies, animal-protein consumption is high and considered ‘normal’. Changing the default, as Blue Bottle and Burger King Austria have done, has the potential to change diets and shift social norms towards more sustainable eating patterns, while maintaining freedom of choice for consumers.
Defaults promote one option without prohibiting the others. They have been shown to be effective in many contexts, such as sign-up rates for organ donation, participation in retirement savings programmes and uptake of green energy. Defaults work because of three main psychological mechanisms. First, making decisions takes effort: it is easier to rely on the status quo. Second, humans are social beings who want to comply with their social environment. Making something the default means it is likely to be perceived as the recommended or socially expected choice. The third reason is slightly more complex: the default can be seen as an ‘instant endowment’. People use it as a reference point to which they compare all the other options, and giving it up can feel like a loss.
As Burger King is finding, defaults aiming to reduce meat consumption work. Virtually all the circumstances that have been studied show default vegetarian options reduce meat consumption – in the most impressive examples, by more than 80 percent. But success has been affected by various factors. For example, consumers’ gender seems to make a difference.
Men appear to have stronger preferences for meat that are harder to overcome. This may be related to other studies that have found a link between perceptions of masculinity and meat-eating.
The level of difficulty not to choose the default also differed across interventions. In a collection of studies, meal selection at a conference could be changed via an online form, while in another study the meat options were on a separate menu posted on a wall approximately 3 metres away so people had to physically move to see those options. How obvious and attractive the alternatives were relative to the default also differed. In some studies, the default vegetarian option was presented in a more mouth-watering way, while in other studies the options were presented more neutrally.
The studies on vegetarian food as the default option suggest that defaults are a promising addition to the toolbox for climate-sensitive food policy. Further research is needed to understand questions critical from a climate-change perspective. Two such questions relate to how long the default effects will persist (will food choices revert to the previous ones if the default is implemented long term or removed?) and whether compensatory behaviours will emerge (will consumers compensate for the vegetarian default by eating more meat later?).
As more and more institutions and companies search for ways to meet sustainability goals, innovative behavioural-science strategies such as plant-based defaults are increasingly employed. For instance, the nonprofit initiative Greener by Default is working with universities and corporations worldwide to test plant-based defaults in a variety of dining settings and make plant-based defaults a new permanent reality as part of institutions’ climate-action strategies. In the coming year, researchers working with Greener by Default will analyse the impact of plant-based defaults at hospitals, corporate cafeterias, catered events and more.
Burger King Austria’s campaign is an ambitious and courageous move, especially for a brand known for its flame-grilled meat. While research continues and more companies choose to default to a sustainable future, we as a global community must ask ourselves: what do we want our ‘new normal’ to be?
(Johanna Meier is a PhD student at Ruhr University Bochum, Germany. Her research interest lies in the transition towards sustainable food systems and planetary diets)