We present the results of both the customer survey and experts’ evaluation in the following. With these results, we want to specifically focus on the general knowledge of consumers about TCA and the communication of the approach both within the campaign and in general. We further investigate customers’ reaction if TCA were to be broadly introduced to the market and the perceived responsibility of different stakeholders for a socially just implementation.
Consumers’ knowledge of ecological costs
In the first part of the survey, we aimed to explore whether customers are generally aware of (ecological) externalities. Out of 109 participants in the standardized face-to-face survey, a total of 56% (N = 61) did notice the price tags and/or the infopoint, which constituted the ‘True Prices’ informational campaign. Even though over half of the participants did see the price tags, they did not necessarily know their meaning nor were able to explain the price increase and calculation indicators. Only 10.09% (N = 11) were able to name one or several reasons for the increased price [indicated ecological damages, as calculated based on Michalke et al. (2020)]. Additionally, a further 20.18% (N = 22) expected different social factors to be the reason for the price increase displayed by the ‘true price’ tags. Mentioned factors as such were, for example, animal welfare, fair wages for workers in the production sector, and production costs (however, these aspects were neither included in the calculations nor displayed at the information point in the market).
Regarding the participants’ general knowledge of the topic, 77.1% (N = 84) had heard of the true prices of food and its underlying issues before. Most of the participants (41.3%, N = 45) received the information via media (TV, radio, newspaper). Ten people (9.2%) actually stated that they were made aware of the existing problems through the ‘True Prices’ campaign itself. Other sources of information mentioned by respondents were social media (N = 7), friends and family (N = 7), farmers' lobby (N = 4), or climate activist groups (N = 3).
These findings on consumers’ general perception of the campaign indicate a knowledge gap for ecological costs in foodstuff production and agri-food networks within the sample. The interviewed TCA practitioners agree with a presumed knowledge deficit (SI, EO), stating that while the consumers’ interest is promising for a successful and accepted implementation of TCA, their level of knowledge still seems insufficient to motivate extensive changes in consumption behavior (EO, TD).
Further, we investigated if informational campaigns, such as the one presented here, can create awareness for ecological issues in current agri-food systems. We were also interested in the campaign’s design-related flaws. A majority of 63.3% (N = 69) assessed the campaign and its message as ‘good / interesting’. On the other hand, 14.7% (N = 16) rated it as ‘pointless / superfluous’ or were ‘skeptical’ (12.8%, N = 14) about it. Findings from the consumer survey show some potential to increase efforts in presentation, explanation, and structuring for future campaigns. As described in 3.1, participants showed very little basic understanding of context, despite the fact that a majority had heard of the topic before, and presumed other issues underlying the ‘true prices’ than those actually addressed in the campaign. Furthermore, some participants were confused over the color coding of price tags (for reference, cf. Fig. 1) and assumed the price tags’ green part to signify organic produce (2.75%, N = 3), and/or the red part to display a product on discount (8.25%, N = 9).
The three experts collectively agree that public campaigns signify great potential towards raising awareness for negative externalities as they utilize TCA as a method to transparently communicate ecological damage to the general public. The Eosta representative (EO) highlights the need for a mindshift and raised levels of awareness of the current unsustainability in agri-food networks as fundamental to introducing TCA as an accepted accounting practice. Truesday Coffee (TD) suggests complementation knowledge-focused measures with tangible offers to take immediate action. This ties in with the statements of two participants who suggested that consumers should indeed have the opportunity to pay the true price voluntarily. TCAs methodological strength lies in addressing these crucial challenges through the holistic integration of people and planet, and thus holds great potential in improving the currently unsustainable agri-food networks (SI, EO, TD).
Monetary factors influencing consumption behavior
Regarding TCAs influence on consumers' behavior, we focused on estimating the customers’ willingness to pay for ‘true prices’ and how the implementation of TCA adjusted pricing would possibly change consumption habits. Assuming that an implementation of the TCA methodology will raise food prices, participants were asked about their willingness to pay (WTP) for product prices with internalized ecological costs. WTP is defined as the maximum price at or below which a customer will definitely buy a product (Tisdell 2005).
To determine the WTP in the survey, three conventionally produced products with their calculated true cost price tag were presented to the customers. Different product categories were included, one plant-based food item (apples) and two animal products: gouda cheese (dairy) and minced meat. Participants were asked whether they would be willing to pay the corresponding ‘true price’ for the respective product or, if not, how much they would maximally be willing to pay. The price increases in the Penny supermarket are composed as follows (cf. Table 1): four medium-sized apples (500 g) entail additional negative externalities of 0.09 €, one package of gouda cheese (400 g) comprises a surplus of 1.75 €, and for 500 g minced meat an additional cost of 4.83 € was determined.
Most respondents (94.5%, N = 103) were willing to pay the ‘true price’ for the apples. A little less than half of the participants (43.9%, N = 47) agreed to pay the ‘true price’ for the gouda cheese. WTP for minced meat was lowest with 33.7% (N = 35) of participants consenting to cover the surplus entirely. Comparing the three selected products and their WTP data, it is apparent that customers were least willing to pay for the most expensive product (which also includes the highest negative externalities).
Provided the participants rejected paying the ‘true price' (‘if not’), their maximum WTP was subsequently inquired. This was done to get more detailed answers on socially accepted increases in food prices. As shown in Fig. 2, the maximum WTP for gouda was, in relation to the current market price, higher than for minced meat. On average, those refusing to cover the ‘true price’ were willing to pay approx. 29% of the price increase for minced meat, which corresponds to a value of 1.41 €. For the gouda cheese, the value is slightly higher: the participants were on average willing to pay approx. 38% of the calculated negative externalities. This resembles a monetary value of 0.66 €. Comparing the collected WTP data, less acceptance for drastic price increases of products can be observed.
Another focus of the study was to explore potential changes in consumption behavior. As described, participants had already been informed about the general methodology of TCA for food and the underlying calculation base (cf. 3.3). Therefore, a general understanding of why prices would be higher with TCA could be attested when inquiring about potential consumption changes. To measure the possible effects of true pricing on consumer behavior, questions focused on changes in consumption of organic and animal-based products.
First, we will give some perspective on the price design of organic and conventional products, respectively. In most cases, the calculated externalities of organic produce are lower than those of conventional produce (except for tomatoes and minced meat, cf. Table 1). Therefore, the price of organic foods would rise less sharply when implementing TCA. As of now, organic products generally have higher market prices than their conventional conspecifics, TCA implementation would diminish these market price differences in favor of organic products; thus making organic products more attractive to consumers not only on an ideological, but also financial basis. Consequently, when consumers were asked if an implementation of TCA for foodstuff would lead them to opt for more organic produce, the following results were yielded: 76.1% (N = 83) of respondents stated that they would increasingly resort to organic products compared to their current shopping behavior. 23% (N = 25) replied they would not buy more organic products than they do now. The answer ‘no’ was further elaborated in a subsequent open question with the following replies: doubts about the organic label (64%, N = 14), already a lot of organic products (18%, N = 4), daily quality more important (9%, N = 2), brands instead of the organic label (5%, N = 1), and favor of regional products (5%, N = 1).
Second, we examined the possibility of behavior change regarding animal products (cf. Fig. 3). Based on the calculations of Michalke et al. (2021), animal-based foods entail significantly higher negative externalities than plant-based products (cf. Table 1). 60.6% (N = 66) of participants stated they would reduce their consumption of animal products if the previously explained true pricing was implemented. People who answered in the negative (39%, N = 43) gave the following reasons: already reduced consumption compared to previous eating habits (45%, N = 17), taste preference (24%, N = 9), (family) eating habits (15%, N = 6), no present consumption (8%, N = 3), and ability to pay (5%, N = 2).
Overall, it can be stated that consumers generally would be willing to change their behavior to a certain extent, if positive or negative monetary incentives were created through the implementation of TCA for food. More than 75% (N = 83) of participants would increase their consumption of organic products in particular. The data from this case study also demonstrates that the consumption of animal products has the potential to be reduced considerably: more than 60% (N = 66) of respondents stated that a comprehensive implementation of ‘true prices’ would lead them to reduce their consumption of animal-based products.
Responsibility for implementation
The last focus of the survey was assessing the perceived responsibility for TCA and its modes of implementation to transform currently unsustainable agri-food networks. Here, the consumers’ perspective on the importance of TCA in general and stakeholder responsibility for the implementation of ‘true prices’ was explored.
To attain broad acceptance, it is important to validate which aspects of TCA approaches are especially valued by the general public. Hence, we asked participants (N = 109) which of the following factors would be most important to be included in TCA: ecological, social or animal welfare (maximum two selections permitted). Alternatively, the options of ‘all of the aforementioned’ or ‘no increase in market prices’ were given. The results reinforce the self-prescribed necessity for holistic assessment in TCA. 69.8% (N = 64) replied that all factors were equally important for consideration. The wish for conceptual inclusivity is further highlighted as both social factors (20.7%, N = 19) and animal welfare (30.5%, N = 28) received more single mentions than ecological factors (16.4%, N = 15). Three people (3.3%) opted for ‘no price increase’ as primarily important.
The general need for TCA is a widely shared view. Amongst the participants (N = 109), a large majority of over 90% ascribed importance to implementing TCA. 51.4% (N = 56) stated this endeavor to be ‘very important’ a further 41.3% (N = 45) selected the option ‘rather important’, and only two people (1.8%) deemed it to be ‘not important at all’.
As TCA is a relatively new tool, it is still largely pushed by individual actors and networks (cf. 4). Three mutually inclusive pathways for a transformation of agri-food systems through TCA are possible: motivated by the government through policies, the economic sector through responsible production, and the general public through conscious consumption. Each could potentially be viewed as liable to translate this novel method into the common application. We, therefore, asked the participants (N = 107) which of the three actors they deem responsible. They were asked to rank the government, economic sector, and general public in terms of their perceived duty to implement sustainable food production and consumption practices. At least one rank had to be selected. Alternatively, they could opt for “all actors equally responsible”.
As seen in Fig. 4, the majority of participants (54.2%; N = 58) view the government, or policy makers, as foremost responsible in implementing more sustainable practices into agri-food networks (rank 1). Another 18.7% (N = 20) voted for the option ‘all actors equally’. The general public was voted foremost in charge by 17.8% (N = 19), while the economic sector received 9.4% (N = 10) of votes. The latter was, however, most often defined as second rank responsible with 21.5% (N = 23). To get an overview, overall mentions of each actor are interesting as well. While the government was by far the most mentioned (N = 72) over all ranks, the general public came second (N = 50), and the economic sector was in third place (N = 44). This indicates that consumers do see the necessity of policy makers to act according to current needs for sustainability.
Pathways for implementation
Throughout the survey, questions regarding responsibility for implementation and ways of implementation arose which are addressed here. In the qualitative expert interviews, key challenges that await clarification prior to a successful application of TCA were of interest. Furthermore, we inquired what would be effective means, incentives, and framework conditions to successfully engage TCA in practice.
To realize the potential inherent to TCA approaches abundant methodological finetuning is needed (SI, TD). To remove obstacles regarding customer approval and comparability, it is important to anticipate critical feedback prior to introducing the method as a general intervention to markets, claims Soil & More Impacts, explaining that TCA needs to meet the self-prescribed demand of holistic assessment across all forms of capital. Fields for further refinement are general preciseness and the calculation of animal-based products which still prove to be problematic in confident calculations (SI). Specificities in production practices, such as distinctly accounting for certified products (e.g., organic, fairtrade), need further development (TD, EO), and with respect to a persisting lack of consumers’ trust and knowledge, proper communicating is needed (cf. 3.1).
A clear scientific consensus for a uniform approach moving forward is yet to be reached (cf. 4.1). As of now, existing TCA methods fall short of aspired levels of holistic accounting but are foreseen to be adequately developed to meet the level of accuracy required for proper transparency (SI, TD). Although it remains challenging to combine planetary and societal sustainability with existing data gaps, this is perceived as a clear strength of TCA: approaches exceed interventions with a singular focus on climate and emissions by integrating diverse ecological indicators, e.g., as addressed in the Planetary Boundaries framework (SI, EO).
To realize the full potential inherent to TCA, a sensible integration of social and ecological dimensions, and herein entailed sensitive data differences needs to be accomplished (EO, SI,TD). One fundamental question yet to be clarified is considering the technical approach to compare and possibly offset natural, human, and social capital (SI). There are manifold approaches to do this (e.g. secondary or primary data approach) and a standardization is not yet underway, which would arguably be beneficial for the consumers’ acceptance. Literature also shows that whichever approach is used for the calculation of true prices, it needs to be comprehensible and transparent for the target group the respective calculation is aimed at (Gemmill-Herren et al. 2021).
While discussing the further pathways for implementation of TCA across all stakeholders (public society, government, and economy), Truesday suggests a TCA label as an adequate step towards improving TCA standards and reputation, while Soil & More Impacts reiterates the central importance of engaging the Polluter Pays Principle: Hastily introducing a TCA label could insufficiently place the customer into the main focus of being responsible for implementation, whilst diminishing the producing actors’ role in achieving higher levels of sustainability in agri-food networks. This ties with concerns of TCA measures adding to social injustice while failing to combat the prevailing market distortions in true ecological and social pricing, which are to be tackled by policy makers alike.
In the interviews, experts focused on the productive potential of political action ahead: TCA’s imminent strength in holistically integrating societal and planetary issues suitably addresses the sustainability endeavors that global politics claim to strive towards (SI, TD, EO). Hence, an extensive implementation of TCA pursued by the legislature of all states (at least in the Global North) seems to be the logical step forward. A number of established instruments and frameworks exist (such as subsidiary practice, CO2-Pricing, and taxation) that would profit from employing TCA, as elaborated by the experts. Such integration of true pricing pre-consumer stage seems favorable with respect to social implications and general leverage for systemic transformation.
Crucial traits for successful development are listed as follows: an active exchange between all players, administrative support, public promotion, and ultimately a formalization of TCA structures. Outside reactions to TCA on business levels vary greatly, all experts agree. TCA is already viewed as a veritable assessment tool for transparency in supply chains, communication, and comparison. On the corporate side, TCA seems to be gaining increased standing, as the food industry recognizes the need for a uniform measurement tool regarding ecological costs (SI). While more and more companies understand TCA as a possibility for profit through frontrunning and thus show interest in engaging in these contexts through adapting their business approaches regarding socio-ecological responsibilities, other players on the market view TCA with skepticism and behave in a wait-and-see manner (SI, TD, EO).
The experts highlight the inherent theory of change: through monetization, TCA is ‘speaking the language’ of financial markets. By internalizing all costs (social, ecological) into the definition of profit it poses a powerful tool to realize the Polluter Pays Principle. Thus, TCA would help to create a fair playing field for all economic actors (EO, SI). Soil & More Impacts explains a double advantage for commercial actors in the agri-food sector: with increasing legal requirements, TCA calculations will not continue to be an immense additional effort but will become less expensive and, at the same time, provide a clear competitive advantage in a world focusing increasingly on socio-ecological justice in economic undertakings. Truesday Coffee emphasizes the scientific data basis particularly, as sufficient availability of such enables a fair and less hierarchical relation between all players in the globally-spun agri-food networks. Latest developments in the German and European financial sector (e.g., the NFRD, parameters considered by rating agencies, etc.) complement TCA approaches (EO, SI). While Soil & More Impacts highlights its quality as a tool for risk minimization for businesses and companies, Eosta sees potential for a new, inclusive profit definition, in which social and ecological capital is inherent (SI). Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether a sufficient number of businesses can find the self-motivated courage to follow TCA standards to sustainably transform agri-food networks. Therefore, and as mirrored in the survey (cf. 3.4), governmental actors are perceived as responsible in guiding the implementation of TCA.
The importance of conclusive governance involvement in the implementation of TCA measures becomes especially apparent with regard to the possibility of TCA increasing the unjust distribution of wealth. On that account, social justice in its manifold expressions needs special addressing: while TCA methods strive for a fair distribution of wealth along global supply chains (e.g., in the form of living wages), it is also important to focus on persistent and rising distribution-related injustice within European (German) society (EO, SI, TD). To view and utilize TCA as a tool to analyze and adapt market distortions within the supply chains (pre consumer) is paramount (SI). Solely marketing eco-friendly diets or adding the previously externalized costs onto the final consumer price is considered insufficient as it counteracts the Polluter Pays Principle (SI). At the same time, certain consumer prices (for environmentally strenuous products) are likely to ascend (cf. Table 1), raising the issue of citizens’ ability to pay for eventually higher food prices, especially for marginalized or underprivileged groups (TD). This ties in with several informal statements given in the consumer survey, where participants argued their income would not suffice for paying the true prices, especially for products that are already of higher cost levels. Questioned consumers also did state the price as the most important factor, when shopping for groceries (36.7%, N = 40), implying a vulnerability towards rising prices at least in the examined sample.