10 Ways to Shift Consumers to More Sustainable Diets

The global food system is a major contributor to climate change and biodiversity loss. If we want to address sustainability across the 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, well, we first need to make the world want it.

It is fair to say that consumer decision-making is complex; it is influenced by social norms, and individual wants and needs. It is subject to the chaotic workings of the human mind, with unexpected triggers, associations, and built-in behaviours. Cognitive or psychological biases lead people to consistently deviate from the results expected of rational behaviour — in fact, over 95% of our decision-making is irrational. So, on face value, this could make behaviour pretty complicated. However, instead of asking people to fight against their nature, we can actually capitalise on these factors…

At Metabolic, we have produced a series of reports for WWF that look at the food system in detail. This blog takes some of the key outtakes from one of these detailed reports to show how we can use consumers as a leverage point to shift the food system towards a more sustainable path. Some of the methods we have identified below may seem obvious to some. However, it is remarkable how many campaigns are still ignoring these principles. Furthermore, although these ideas have been structured around food, they can be applied to any sustainability initiative.

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

1. Make it positive
Many interventions to change consumer behaviour focus on providing facts and information, using 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.

2. Make it easy to do
Consumers are less likely to buy a product that is complex or not compatible with their lifestyle. 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 us. 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.

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. Some criticism of the organic sector has pointed out that some of the benefits have not been clearly expressed enough.

4. Make the cost make sense
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. Studies highlight the increased success when insects are processed into other goods or simply ground into a more visually palatable form. Respected figures in the gastronomic world are also 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 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 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 — provide powerful diffusion mechanisms for new behaviours, offering social proof and permitting 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, 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.

These ten ideas are adapted from the report Consumer Behaviour as a Leverage Point in the Food System, written by Metabolic for WWF.

The reasons for shaking up the food system are pretty clear.