10 ways to shift consumers towards sustainable diets

Published on the 17th of March 2017

Whether you’re launching a product or campaigning for change, here are ten ways to intervene to affect consumer behaviour around food.

If we want to address sustainability in the global food system, we must pay attention to ways we can influence consumer behaviour. They are a major force in the global economy, with their purchases representing about 60% of the world’s GDP. Their purchase decisions have important impacts through market demand and if we want the world to adopt a more sustainable diet, we first need to make the world want it.

The global food system is a major contributor to climate change and biodiversity loss. Metabolic has a long track record of working across food and agriculture to see how we can change this. In 2016, we published The Global Food System: An Analysis, a report commissioned by WWF Netherlands. It identified key negative behavioural patterns and structural problems across the global food system, as well as intervention points that could be used to trigger change across the system. This was followed by the report Consumer Behaviour and the Food System – also commissioned by WWF – which takes an in-depth look at one of these intervention points: changing the food-related decisions consumers make on a daily basis. This article pulls together some of the key insights from that report.

Whilst we won’t go into the full scope of what constitutes a ‘sustainable diet’ in this article, two practices worth noting here (and which are included as examples in the list below) are eating less meat and eating more organic food. The livestock sector is responsible for over 14.5% of human-related greenhouse gas emissions. Diet changes to vegetarianism or switching to alternative sources of protein, like insects, could bring an important reduction in these emissions. Agricultural practices are also a major source of nitrogen emissions and can lead to negative impacts though nutrient runoff into freshwater systems. Organic agriculture can reduce the use of fertilizers and mitigate these impacts. As we will see, each of these practices have their own communications challenges and opportunities, and they provide lessons for how other products or practices can be adopted.

It is fair to say that consumer decision-making is influenced by a complex set of social norms and individual wants and needs. It is subject to the chaotic workings of the human mind, with unexpected triggers, associations, and encoded behaviours. (You can read more about the workings of the mind in the report). Cognitive or psychological biases lead people to consistently deviate from the optimal results expected of rational behaviour – in fact, over 95% of our decision-making is irrational. People can have a positive attitude towards sustainable food, but that doesn’t mean it will translate into changes in their decisions. This makes the endeavor of changing behaviour complicated… and yet it is far from impossible.

If decision making is fundamentally determined by cognitive biases and shortcuts, then instead of asking people to fight against their nature, we can capitalize on these factors to affect behavioural change. And to ensure they land, interventions should not only be targeted but also used in combination: strategies that influence processing and adoption must be combined with those that enable and stabilize behaviour, and we must combine high feasibility with high impact. Shifting behaviours will lead to significant changes in the global food system, so the rewards are immense.

Some of the methods we have identified below may seem obvious to some. However, it is remarkable how many consumer behaviour change campaigns are still ignoring these principles. Furthermore, although these ideas have been structured around food, they can be applied to any sustainability initiative. If you put them to use, we’d love to hear how things work out.


Ten ways to shift consumer dietary attitudes and habits:

1. Make it positive

When following conventional economic or marketing models, many interventions to change consumer behaviour focus on providing facts and information. Many make use of controversial, reprimanding, or shocking messages to reach their audiences. However, consumers often shun (or subconsciously ignore) messages that attack their lifestyles or trigger a sense of anxiety or guilt. They react more positively to optimistic, gain-framed messages. In terms of vegetarianism, for example, instead of portraying the cruelty of the livestock industry, provide messages that portray the harmony, status and health benefits of a vegetarian diet. The experience around the new behaviour should also be positive – when this happens, it is more likely to be repeated and, in the long-term, become a habit.

2. Make it easy to do

Consumers are less likely to buy a product that is complex or not compatible with their current lifestyles. Rational decision-making is taxing for the mind and we have evolved a series of mechanisms to avoid it altogether. These include habits, imitation, and heuristics (such as rules-of-thumb and educated guesses) to assist in this process. Food decisions are particularly prone to this type of ‘peripheral’ processing. Most consumers go with what is easy, attractive, and common around them. Therefore basic ‘nudge’ techniques are important to introduce, such as prominently displaying sustainable options in stores and on menus – this might include listing tofu and tempe under the meat options to increase vegetarian consumption. Nudging is more effective than relying on willpower or motivation.

3. Make benefits clear

Consumers are unlikely to spend additional resources on a product whose value is not clear. Labelling and certification schemes, offering guarantees, and spreading information that conveys the positive impact of an action can help. The techniques will differ greatly according to the perceived doubt (financial, performance, physical, psychological or social). The Fairtrade International label, for example, provides clear principles and strict standards, which gives the consumer assurance over products. To boost organic sales, adverts based on its health benefits can motivate decisions – though some criticism of the organic sector has pointed out that some of these benefits are still unclear.

4. Make the cost make sense

If the benefits are clear then consumers may pay a premium. However, if the cost is perceived as too high, even informed consumers will be put off. In terms of organics, their affordability varies significantly across the EU. In 2012, Denmark had the highest share of organic produce in the world and continues to implement policies that increase supply (such as incentives for farmers), lowering the cost for everyday consumers. In contrast, initiatives in the US and the UK have focused only on encouraging demand, which has created less dramatic growth. Most people introducing a new product aren’t supported by government incentives, so ensure the price is backed up with clearly defined messages around the product’s ‘value’ that your audience can relate to.

5. Make it look good

One of the largest issues to promoting entomophagy (eating insects) is the perceived repulsiveness. Even though it is heralded as a nutrient and protein-rich alternative to conventional meat, in the western world insects are associated with death, illness, and contamination. Multiple studies have highlighted the increased success when insects are processed into other goods or simply ground into a more visually palatable form. The image of eating insects is also being helped by respected figures in the gastronomic world creating new associations by introducing ‘insect cuisine’ in cookbooks and by helping consumers to try insect food in a refined context. ‘Image editing’ does not try to alter the consumer’s decision-making; it makes the behaviour more desirable by itself.

6. Make it tangible

The quickest way to establish a new habit is to chain the desired new behaviour together with an already established one. It is also important to make the desired behavioural change concrete. Instead of giving consumers the abstract goal of eating more fruit and vegetables, we ask them to eat five pieces each day. Instead of asking consumers to eat less meat, ask them to start with one meatless day a week.

7. Make it social

Mass communications can reach many people and allow careful construction of the message, but will ultimately influence only a small portion of the audience. Social networks – online and offline – are one of the most powerful diffusion mechanisms for new behaviours. They offer social proof and permit fast permeation of behaviours. Through social networks, behavioural change can be better targeted and make a larger impact. And it might sound obvious, but let’s not forget the effect of social media celebrities to give the behaviour credibility.

8. Make it normal

Humans are hardwired to develop and adhere to norms. Recurrent actions increase certainty and reduce risk, and are more likely to be carried out than new or experimental ones. Once habits are well established, behaviour occurs automatically, triggered by environmental cues and without the need for additional processing. People unconsciously imitate the attitudes and behaviours of those around them – you can use this to trick them into accepting something as normal for themselves. In train stations in the Netherlands, for example, a sign stating how many consumers have already bought fruit increased subsequent fruit purchases.

9. Make it rewarded

Consumers don’t like to have their good work go unrecognized – they appreciate a pat on the back now and again. Supermarkets have considered using customer-specific purchase data to offer social feedback of their diet, comparing it to that of the average consumer. By praising healthy and sustainable consumption, they could support these behaviours. The energy sector is already using this technique by giving insight into the average monthly energy usage of a household, compared to that of its neighbours, and commending good performance, to great results in consistent energy reduction.

10. Make it a lever

We can target behaviours at smaller – and often the most relevant – groups to build adoption, which can then lead to normalisation amongst general consumers. Market segmentation is an effective strategy as it allows control of communication, with time to react and correct the course of the campaign. Building on this, ‘shepherding’ describes a behavioural intervention that works hand-in-hand with communities by, for example, organising workshops, social events, and support groups. Shepherding is resource intensive but effective at creating lasting effects if the behaviours are accepted in the community.

Find out more: read the full report and detailed analysis here.

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