Commissioned by: WWF Netherlands & Market Transformation Initiative

Consumer behavior as a leverage point in the food system

Executive summary

This report analyses the consumer decision-making process to assess the potential for creating behavioral interventions that induce large-scale and permanent change in consumers and subsequently, the food system itself.

Consumers are a major force in the global economic system, with their purchases representing about 60% of the world’s GDP. As such, consumer food decisions have important impacts on the food system through their market demand, sometimes determining what food will be produced and by what methods.

People follow complex and seemingly chaotic mechanisms to make decisions and adopt behaviors, with a multitude of factors influencing these. When following conventional economic or marketing models, most interventions to change consumer behavior focus on providing facts and information. They may make use of controversial, reprimanding, or shocking messages to reach their audiences. However, consumers often shun these negative narratives and disregard information related to things they don’t care about or feel unable to change.

To reach consumers, messages should be positive, awe-inspiring, and engaging rather than shocking, framed in terms of loss, or demanding sacrifice. Consumers’ decisions are more readily swayed by positive cues, such as pleasant images and enjoyable experiences. These forms of positive reinforcement are much more effective than negative information, which may be ignored entirely. Most people will not be willing to make sacrifices for the planet or people they don’t know; scale and proximity of target impacts are hugely important when considering behavioral change. Rather than looking at future impacts which seem distant or irrelevant, marketers need to highlight personal benefits. Through diffusion in social networks and media sources, behavioral change can be better targeted and make a larger impact. Rather than attempting to make everyone change at once, it is wiser to target networks that have a greater likelihood of responding to a particular message. This message will then diffuse more broadly with less need for external influence and information provision. In the long term, the ideal intervention is one that establishes desired behaviors as habits and guarantees the external conditions for these habits to occur smoothly and thoughtlessly.

Despite these general guidelines, behavioral outcomes are extremely sensitive to a wide variety of factors, many of which interact unpredictably and not based on static preferences. It is very easy to affect human behavior, but it is hard to accurately anticipate the way in which people will react to behavioral interventions. As such, interventions should be targeted and specific, they should be optimized to harness cognitive limitations, and they should be rolled out alongside complementary structural interventions on the food system: Infrastructure, product prices and standards, economic incentives, and the use of nudging techniques to create convenience. A combination of strategies focussing on different aspects should be used to guarantee the large-scale adoption, diffusion, and establishment of desired behaviors.

While long-term behavioral change is inherently complicated, it still has potential to induce positive systemic change under the right circumstances. Interventions on a consumer level should be applied synergistically with strategies addressing other parts of the food system. Neglecting consumers will reduce the effectiveness of other interventions targeting producers, traders, and regulators because of the interdependence between these groups. Without adequate behavioral change programs, consumers will remain subject to the existing narratives and messages that promote high impact products and behaviors.


In 2016, Metabolic published “The Global Food System: An Analysis”, a report commissioned by WWF Netherlands to provide systems level analysis of the food system. The report identified key behavioral patterns and structural causes that result in the negative impacts of the global food system. Metabolic also identified a series of intervention points that could be used to trigger structural change across the system to bring it to a healthy and sustainable state. This report on consumer behavior is an in-depth look at one of these intervention points: changing the everyday food-related decisions consumers make on a daily basis.

Billions of consumers make decisions regarding food, exerting a major force on the structure of the system. This has brought a lot of attention to changing consumer behavior as a strategic area for sustainability interventions. However, these decisions are more complex than they appear and are highly influenced by the context in which they happen.

As discussed in the Global Analysis report, behaviors occur in a dynamic system where consumers interact with producers, farmers, traders, retailers, industries, governments, and a series of other actors. In light of this, and considering the asymmetries of power between these groups, it is inaccurate to think of consumer behavior as the fundamental driver of the market or as the core issue necessary to move our economy to a more sustainable state. Next to these actors, socioeconomic and governance structures play as much of a part, and should be addressed holistically for effective change in the food system. Thus, the best means to guarantee long-term change is to accompany behavioral interventions with changes in the underlying structures and conditions that determine these behaviors, and to address issues across the chain, not on a single type of stakeholder.

Civil society organisations have focused their intervention efforts on awareness and information campaigns to persuade the public to change its decisions on food purchasing. The goal of these campaigns is generally to encourage consumers to change their habits or make personal sacrifices, often for causes that seem distant or personally irrelevant. The style of messaging frequently leans heavily on shocking or depressing content.

For example, PETA’s campaigns tend to use shocking and controversial elements, including themes related to the holocaust, racism, sexual objectification, blood, and animal carcasses to draw attention to their message (Bhasin, 2011; PETA, 2015). The “BeVegetarian” campaign highlighted the contradictory social constructs applied to animals: some are seen as pets and others as food (BeVeg, 2011). While these kinds of campaigns are effective at grabbing the attention of the media, such messages typically fail to cause lasting changes in consumer behavior. The focus on negative information is more likely to cause discomfort and trigger defence mechanisms, resulting in justifications for the continuation of current practices rather than motivating change.

These campaigns are well intended but, in the big picture, their effectiveness is fleeting and questionable at best, as they ultimately work against the nature of the consumer’s mind. For example, one of the most common subjects of ethical and environmental campaigning in the food system is that of meat consumption. While decisions to reduce or eliminate meat consumption have taken root with more engaged and committed consumer groups, macro-level market trends have not shown significant alteration; the overall demand for meat has remained relatively stable in past decades (see page 6 for a more detailed look at meat consumption trends).

Consumer behavior is a complex and dynamic phenomenon based on a very sensitive and unpredictable decision-making process. Due to these characteristics, it is extremely easy to alter the outcome of this process, but it is difficult to do so in a predictable way. However, recent research from behavioral economics and related fields has shed light on strategic ways to improve the effectiveness of behavioral interventions.

The objective of this report is to provide a clear picture of the behavioral process, both at the individual and social levels, and assess the available strategies to steer it to sustainable patterns of behavior. The models of bounded rationality and cognitive biases are useful for understanding human nature and decision-making. We use these models to complement concepts from marketing, economics, psychology, and sociology. Together, these areas of knowledge can be translated into strategies for more effective behavioral interventions that are described at the end of this report.

Case studies

Current trends for meat consumption and organic agriculture

The consumption of insects and organic foods are interesting for their potential to reduce the negative impact of the food system. We study how both cases have been promoted to the public to contextualize the successes and limitations of these behavioral interventions.

The livestock sector is responsible for over 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. This is one indication of the ecological benefits that could be achieved through reduced meat consumption. Increasing insect consumption is a potential means to reducing demand for conventional meat industry products (FAO, 2013).

A different greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide is mainly emitted via agricultural practices. A shift toward organic agriculture is one pathway for significantly reducing some of the environmental impacts of food production (FAO, 2002). Consumer acceptance and broad market demand for alternative products are essential for the broad adoption of these or similar strategies.

Meat consumption per capita has seen changes in both Europe and the United States. After decades of growth, total consumption peaked in the US in 2007, after which it has seen a negative trend. This is explained by two factors: the economic recession that started in 2008 and a growing awareness of the health impacts of meat consumption (Packaged Facts, 2013). In Europe, total meat consumption has remained relatively stable, at lower levels than in the US. Beef consumption in particular has decreased in the last 30 years in several major economies: France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States; while poultry has generally gained importance in diets.

Graphic: The consumption of poultry is increasing in Europe and the US.
Graphic: Consumer behavior is changing when it comes to red meat. Beef consumption is very slowly declining in Europe and the US.
Annual beef and poultry consumption, on a per capita basis. While total meat consumption has seen general increases, the share of poultry in the diet has made important gains over beef. (Source: FAOStat Food Balance, 2015).

Meanwhile, organic food is successfully transitioning from high-end and alternative niches to ubiquitious prodcuts. In the United States, sales increased by 53% between 2009 and 2014 (Packaged Facts, 2014). The US and Canada hold 7% of the world’s organic agricultural land, while Europe accounts for 27%, and Oceania for 40%. Switzerland, Denmark, and Luxeumbourg have the highest per capita consumption or organic food (FiBL & IFOAM, 2015).

Graphic: Organic farming practices, though small, are an increasingly important component of the food system.
In terms of global land under organic production, there has been an almost four-fold increase between 1999 and 2013. Yet, there is still a long way for organics to go as they account only for 3% of the world’s arable land (FiBL & IFOAM, 2015).

Entomophagy: an intervention in processing

Entomophagy, the eating of insects as food, is heralded as a nutrient and protein-rich alternative to conventional meat (Yen, 2009). As recognition increases about the unsustainable nature of industrial livestock and meat production, the popularity of entomophagy is slowly growing (Hartmann, 2015).

In various parts of the world, eating insects is normal. In 36 African countries, more than 524 species are part of the normal diet and may contribute over 50% of dietary animal protein (Raubenheimer, 2013). In contrast, rates of insect eating in the West are much lower. Forty-one species are eaten across 11 European countries. This lower consumption is the result of long standing socio-cultural barriers, like food taboos, as well as psychological barriers, like the fear of new foods (Verbeke, 2015).

Educate, inform, and spread knowledge:

Most insect food that is currently available to consumers is marketed on grounds of its nutritional content and sustainability benefits (Deroy, 2015). However, studies show no effective relationship between provision of information and willingness to eat insects. Education has not significantly altered consumer behavior, as diets are subject to sociocultural norms and knowledge is unlikely to alter this (Lensvelt, 2014).

Change consumer perception:

One of the largest issues to promoting entomophagy is the perceived lack of attractiveness of insects (Deroy, 2014). In the western world, insects are associated with death, illness, and contamination, which trigger a disgust response. As western media spreads around the world, so does this cognitive association (Hartmann, 2015).

People are more willing to eat insect products when these have been ground into a more visually palatable form. Multiple studies have highlighted the increased success of insects as food when they are processed into other goods (Deroy, 2014; Hartmann, 2015). When the sensory cues reminding of the insect content are removed, the cognitive associations of disgust become weaker and attractiveness increases (Lensvelt, 2014)

Raise consumer involvement & change norms:

In cultures where entomophagy is common, the activity is associated with communal practices (Raubenheimer, 2013). Social participation in the harvesting, cooking, and sharing of insect food reduces the disgust factor. Interactive and hands-on family workshops and communal activities in Western countries have been successful at reducing insect disgust and making it a socially acceptable meal (Deroy, 2015).

Strategize around consumer lifestyle/image:

A final technique employed to help increase the willingness to try insects as food is “image” creation, where specialists or respected figures in the gastronomic world create new associations for insect food. This process enhances the credibility and reduces the perceived risks of eating insects (Deroy, 2015). A variety of cookbooks are now dedicated to insect food and respected chefs are hosting large dining events to enable consumers to try insect food in a refined context. These efforts have demonstrated positive responses from the “foodie” world and are helping to shift cultural biases against insects.

Entomophagy today:

Currently, entomophagy has widespread support from the scientific community and environmental and international organisations. Consumers are aware of its nutritional and environmental benefits and insects have popped up as specialty ingredients in restaurants, so much that they have been identified as a “coming trend” in the food industry (Baum+Whiteman, 2015). As can be seen in the graph below, interest in entomophagy has been sparked by the media and international community, but the interest and awareness have not translated to large-scale buying behavior. Overcoming the disgust reaction and cultural issues stand as the major barriers to adoption (Shelomi, 2015).

Source: Google trends analytics for “entomophagy” (November, 2015).
Google searches for “entomophagy” and related items. The initial peaks in 2005 coincide with several BBC and National geographic publications on the topic, while the May 2013 coincides with the major FAO publication “Edible Insects”. Interest in the topic is expected to move in a positive trend in the coming months.

Organic food: intervention in the behavioral gap

Organic food is one of many suggested tools to reduce some of the environmental impacts of food production practices across the world (Broberg, 2010). The increased recognition by EU consumers related to environmental challenges and the value of organics has spurred market demand for these agricultural products. Between 2003 and 2013, the global market for organic food grew 250% to have a total value of 45.8 billion, with 47% of the consumption in Europe (Marian et al, 2014).Various institutional policies in the EU have assisted these developments, with a large focus placed on the role of consumers (Marian et al, 2014). Whilst various studies have shown that the market is indeed growing quickly, intention to pay a premium for sustainable products does not always translate to actual purchasing behavior (Sandhu, 2010). Various tools and techniques have been used to help reduce this gap between intention and behavior.

Change perceived effectiveness & clarity of outcome:

Effectively motivating consumers to change their habitual purchasing practices relies on their ability to recognize that this change will have a genuine impact. Consumers are unlikely to spend additional resources on a product whose value is not clear (Vittersø & Tangeland, 2015). EU member states have adopted a variety of certification and labelling schemes to assure consumers they are purchasing a product with reduced impact (Madar & Neacsu, 2013).

These tools guarantee that organic production standards are maintained and provide visual cues to consumers that communicate the product’s quality (Madar & Neacsu, 2013; Rousseau & Vranken, 2013). For example, the Swedish KRAV eco-label has been one of the most effective organic labels to date, providing consumers with knowledge and trust in organics (Broberg, 2010; Eurostat, 2015). It is a public-private partnership, which has increased the legitimacy of the certification body (Vittersø & Tangeland, 2015). In 2012 the Swedish organic market was the second largest in Europe and it was worth €917 million (IFOAM EU Group Stats, 2015). Labelling is not the only factor behind the success of organics, as supply-oriented policies worked in tandem with these demand related interventions.

Change certainty of outcome:

Another important aspect of influencing behavior is the certainty of impact of adopting a product (Marian, 2013). Advertisements based on the health benefits of organics and the negative impacts of conventional food have increased consumers’ willingness to purchase these products (Pieniak, 2010). Information campaigns are a popular means to provide this information (Sønderskov & Daugbjerg, 2011). These campaigns provide knowledge via seminars, schooling programs, and social media. While the long-term effectiveness is uncertain, short-term studies have demonstrated positive results. For example, Belgian consumers were willing to pay a premium for organic apples once informed about the environmental and health benefits (Vittersø & Tangeland, 2015). Studies have also recognized that if the relative premium is perceived as too high, even informed consumers might revert to conventional produce (Vittersø & Tangeland, 2015).

Changing affordability:

Due to the economic nature of food market, the affordability of organic produce varies significantly across the EU (Gunnar & Tangeland, 2015). In 2012, Denmark had the highest share of organic produce in the world and continues to implement policies that increase supply, lowering the cost of organic produce for everyday consumers (Sønderskov & Daugbjerg, 2011). This reduces one of the most significant factors of the behavioral gap, which is the affordability of organic food. The Scandinavian approach combines incentives for farmers with demand-oriented policies that target consumer change (Vittersø & Tangeland, 2015). In contrast, initiatives in the US and the UK have focused only on encouraging demand, which has created a less dramatic growth (Sønderskov & Daugbjerg, 2011). In short, although these techniques are important for increasing demand for organics and reducing the behavioral gap, broader integrated approaches appear to create more substantial, sustained and systemic impacts.

Organics today:

European countries lead the organics market and industry. 5.6% of the EU’s arable land is dedicated to organics production, the highest share in the world, and Europeans constitute half of the global organics market (Meredith & Willer, 2014). In Western Europe, barriers to further adoption and purchases include limited availability for regular users, while lack of trust in institutions, lack of information, and lack of interest still remain a problem for new consumers (O’Doherty Jensen et al, 2011). In Eastern Europe, barriers to adoption include lack of institutional support and chain development, but on the consumer side there is a poor acceptance of price premiums and lack of trust in certification bodies (Larsson et al, 2013).

In the United States, support for organics lags far behind Europe but has been growing quickly. 84% of the people purchase some organic product, but supply is insufficient and remains a barrier to larger adoption (Organic Trade Association, 2015).


From the public and civil society side, behavioral interventions have traditionally relied on providing information to consumers as main strategies to persuade consumers to break away from their habits. These interventions differ strongly from the approaches used by marketing and the private industry, which work with consumers’ desires and cognitive biases to encourage consumption. Consumers generally lack the interest and abilities to use information in their decision-making, and rather rely heavily on sensory cues and heuristics to make choices.

Consumer behavior can be altered by effective interventions, and is a necessary part of broader changes towards sustainability. 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 behaviors. This makes the endeavor complicated yet not impossible.

Cognitive biases are the underlying feature that directs both the individual and the social behavioural processes. Effective interventions are those that harness these biases instead of working against them. In the long term, behavior can be established through habits, infrastructure, and social norms.

It must also be understood that both at the individual and social levels, behaviour is an unstable and dynamic phenomenon that will always change on its own by its very nature. Steering behavior to any desired state and maintaining it there is a permanent challenge that will require continuous and iterative interventions.