Targeted behavioural interventions to assist consumers in practicing sustainable water and food usage

Published on
September 15, 2023

A growing global population, exceeding planetary limits and climate change pose major challenges. To enable innovation, climate action and an overall societal sustainable transformation, a profound change in consumer behaviour is needed. However, consumer behaviour is complex and changing behaviour requires a multidisciplinary approach with cutting-edge interventions.

Earlier this year, Wageningen University & Research (WUR), in collaboration with consortium partners the foundation Food Waste Free United, Unilever, Too Good To Go, PWN, WML and KWR Water Research Institute, launched a project focused on consumer behavioural interventions.

Let’s make it easier being green

The project, aptly named 'Let's make it easier being green', aims to select, develop and test behavioural interventions to encourage consumers to adopt environmentally friendly behaviour. The goal is to create interventions that are not only effective and practical but also embraced by individuals in their daily lives, fostering long-term environmentally responsible actions.

Within this initiative, the consortium is focusing on consumer behaviour related to water usage and household food waste. They are using a similar approach to select and collaboratively create behavioural interventions.

Behavioural change

Monique Vingerhoeds, the project leader at WUR, explains why these two specific cases were chosen: "Both food wastage and water usage involve altering ingrained habits, often carried out automatically or unconsciously. By investigating both of these topics within a single project, we can derive broader insights into behavioural change, thus amplifying our overall impact."

This project offers effective methods for achieving lasting changes in behaviour. Partners can incorporate these methods into their products, services, and campaigns, thereby contributing to the promotion of enduring environmentally friendly practices, such as water conservation and reducing food waste.

In the Netherlands, a significant amount of food goes to waste, with an average of 33.4 kilograms per person in 2022. Unfortunately, compared to previous measurements, there hasn't been as much reduction in food waste this time. Therefore, it is clear that more concerted efforts are necessary to further reduce food waste at the household level.

René Lion, Senior Consumer Scientist at Unilever

"Reducing food waste is very important to Unilever; it's both wasteful and needless to discard food. Consequently, it's crucial for consumers to handle product shelf-life information properly to prevent unnecessary food disposal. Through research and collaboration, we increasingly understand how to prevent food waste by permanently changing consumer behaviour."

Geertje Zeegers, Country Director of Too Good To Go the Netherlands

"We know that 14% of consumer waste at home results directly from the improper handling or misinterpretation of the best-before dates. To prevent food waste, behavioural change, such as rekindling trust in your senses again when it comes to products past their 'Best before' (BBD) date, is essential. We encourage consumers to do this by paying attention to the 'Look, smell, taste’ label on packaging of products with a BBD date, but more is needed. Collaboration with companies and research organizations is key and this consortium makes it possible to study the actual effect on consumer behaviour."

Drinking water saving

The average household drinking water consumption is 129 litres per person per day. Because of water scarcity, the Ministry of I&W has set an ambitious drinking water saving goal to reduce the average Dutch person's drinking water consumption from around 130 litres to 100 litres per day by 2035.

Stefanie Salmon, researcher Consumer Behaviour at KWR Water Research Institute, explains why this research is so important: "Many of our daily choices regarding water usage at home are made without much thought, almost on autopilot. Consider actions like flushing the toilet, running the tap while doing dishes, doing laundry, or watering the garden after a hot day. Until now, summer consumer campaigns aimed at saving water have mainly focused on knowledge transfer. However, we now understand that merely possessing knowledge and the intention to conserve water have little impact on these ingrained behaviors. In this project, we investigate how to respond to these daily thoughtless behaviours around water use in summer, with the aim of forming new, water-saving habits, which ensure long-term water savings."

Finally, the project provides more general insights that can be used to support consumers in changing to and maintaining environmentally friendly behaviour.

Sanne Stroosnijder, Programme Manager for Food Loss and Waste Prevention at WUR

"This collaboration is truly special, bringing together public and private sectors to foster more sustainable behaviour. Food and water are undeniably among the most crucial elements in our homes. By gaining a deeper insight into how we can collectively reduce waste, we empower ourselves to make sustainable choices on a daily basis, ultimately making a positive impact on individuals, our planet, and our finances."