Sustainable – but ‘disgusting’ – products become more attractive in a second language

Insects are a much more sustainable source of protein than meat, but even environmentally conscious consumers might need to overcome feelings of repulsion before actually eating them. Research by Dr Anne-Kathrin Klesse of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), Janet Geipel and Constantinos Hadjichristidis now shows that describing ‘sustainable-but-disgusting’ products in a second language makes people more willing to consume them.

Language can be a powerful vessel for emotions, says Klesse. Earlier research has shown that translating a marketing slogan into a foreign language can reduce the emotional associations of the message. According to RSM’s Professor Stefano Puntoni the emotionality of a word in a given language increases the more often it has been experienced in that language. As second languages are typically used less often, words in a second language elicit fewer emotions than their native language equivalents.

Klesse and her team were interested to see if these mechanics could work to make sustainable products that typically suffer from strong emotional responses of disgust, more attractive to consumers.

Artificial meat

To find out, the researchers first set up a series of experiments to test consumer reactions to new products that all have the potential to significantly contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but are also repulsive in people’s minds: insect-based cookies, artificial meat and ‘recycled water’, which is essentially treated and converted sewage water.

In the four experiments, more than 700 participants were randomly given descriptions of these products in their mother tongue, or in another second language they were sufficiently skillful in to understand the test.

Analysis of their reactions showed that the use of a second language -rather than one’s native language- in the product description increased people’s willingness to consume the products. The results of the insect-based cookie experiment also revealed that describing the product in a second language decreased feelings of disgust, which in turn made consumers more amenable to try out the product.

Treated water

In another experiment, the researchers tested how many of the 201 participants would take the step to actually drink water that was described to them as ‘recycled’ (it was bottled water, they heard afterwards). Using a second language helped to increase the amount of water participants drank, but only as long as participants were not thirsty, the results showed. An urgent need, such as thirst, apparently also helps to overcome repulsion, Klesse notes.

Klesse indicates that the results of this study suggest an implementable strategy to promote sustainable consumption by decreasing the disgust associated with sustainable, but intuitively repulsive products. And the potential of the team’s findings will only grow: due to globalisation the number of people that receive information in a language other than their native tongue and speak several languages on a daily basis will only increase, Klesse concludes.

Read the article here: J. Geipel, C. Hadjichristidis & A.K. Klesse (2018). Barriers to sustainable consumption attenuated by foreign language use. Nature Sustainability, 1 (January), 31-33.

More information

Ramses Singeling, Media Officer RSM, T +31 10 408 2028 or E

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