KNOWLEDGE MAP Back to overview

An overview of insights on the (un)sustainability of the international food system.

Food & Sustainability

What are the obstacles related to behaviour and society?

For most consumers, sustainable food is not a priority; they mainly prefer to choose based on taste, convenience and price. To change this, they need to be better informed and stimulated to make sustainable choices.

Why do so few people choose to consume sustainably?

Although almost all consumers indicate that they find sustainable food values important, the actual intention to purchase sustainable products is decidedly lower. Consumers are not always rational; according to some experts 90% of the choice processes during shopping are subconscious. A small proportion of consumers considers animal welfare, environment and fairness important and act accordingly. A slightly larger group agrees, but only buys the products when they are affordable, tasty and healthy. But a large majority finds convenience, taste and price the most important factors.

Besides habit and preference the social environment is of great influence, for instance through peer pressure and role models, as well as the physical environment, such as where and in what way products are presented. Consumers indicate that their environment does stimulate them to eat healthily, but to a much lesser extent to eat sustainably.

Backus, G., Meeusen, M., Dagevos, H., van ‘t Riet, J. (2011), p. 25-28.

Lindstrøm, M. (2012), p. 71.

Bartels, J., Onwezen, M.C., Ronteltap, A., Fischer, A.R.H., Kole, A.P.W., van Veggel, R.J.F.M., Meeusen, M.J.G. (red.) (2009), p. 15.

Enticing consumers to make sustainable choices

Choice processes stem from an interplay of motives, abilities and circumstances. Motives (values, emotions, attitudes, personal standards, awareness and problem awareness) guide consumers in their behaviour. The consumer further requires competences (knowledge and skills) in order to act according to those motives. Finally, there are external circumstances (physical environment, technology, economic conditions and socio-cultural environment) that play an important role in guiding behaviour. Key insights include:

  • The behaviour of others can be an incentive for sustainable behaviour
  • Non-sustainable behaviour is often caused by the force of habit
  • Attractiveness and convenience make sustainable behaviour easier
  • New technologies offer opportunities to enable sustainable behaviour
  • Different groups of people require different types of solutions

In addition, due to the many brands and labels in the market, as well as the many messages from government, business and NGOs, it is important that there is agreement on what exactly defines sustainability and how consumers can convert a desire to eat more sustainably into action. By making sustainable choices easy, attractive (tasty, affordable and desirable), understandable and rewarding, consumers can be encouraged to develop more sustainable habits and routines.

RLI (2014), p. 57-78, 21-24.

Motivaction (2015), p. 11-18.

Rijksoverheid (2015), p. 3.