Professor Marleen Onwezen: 'More effective interventions are possible for more sustainable consumer behaviour'

March 19, 2024

On March 2024 Marleen Onwezen was appointed as special professor at the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour group at Wageningen University & Research in behavioural economics in enduring sustainable food choices. Her work in Wageningen Economic Research has made this appointment possible. She is eager to start working on how to use the rich field of behavioural economics to support more sustainable choices.

The chair creates new scientific insights and more possibilities for collaborations. Onwezen: “Sustainable food choices will be the core of my work, but we are also going to look at the extent to which we can ensure that there is repetition, so that the behaviour is going to stick over time and also how it can spread to other contexts and domains. For example, at home versus in the canteen and less meat consumption versus choice for eco-labelled products or going by bike.”


Onwezen refers to studies on consumer acceptance when it comes to alternative proteins. “Often people want to eat less meat, but it doesn’t happen. Convenience and price then surface as conscious motives, but in research we see that emotions and social environment are also very important. This offers opportunities.” She believes that the role of consumer behaviour is underestimated on the moment, and much more impactful interventions can be used to support sustainable decision making.

More impact

The upcoming years she will use her new position to find novel ways to increase the impact of her work and connect expertise within Wageningen. “How can we use all the cool mechanisms from Behavioural Economics to increase impact? That is not an easy question that I am going to solve in short time. It is, however, the question that is here now and that comes back in small, interesting studies, but also dissipates again. How can we ensure that an intervention does not just have a fleeting impact, but that interventions fuel the fire further so that the flame keeps burning. If we can think about interventions like this that stick over time, we will have so much more impact.”


She recognises people’s struggles. “I stopped eating meat four years ago because I could no longer explain it to myself. Now I still struggle with cheese. I find cheese incredibly tasty, but I also know far too well the environmental impact and that it’s not that healthy. You see this kind of struggle in many places and with many people. In the protein transition, it is not that we should all stop consuming meat. That discussion is sometimes a bit exaggerated. Some choose to eat meat less often in a large portion, while for others meat really belongs in the evening meal but with a smaller portion. Different solutions are possible.”

Tipping point

Onwezen has always been fascinated by human behaviour. “I am incredibly inspired by the brain and want to understand why people do what they do. I also think it’s cool when something happens with all the knowledge. When you use the insights to support transitions.” According to Onwezen, once we reach a tipping point, things can go fast. “Things are going too slowly now. We know a lot and see the importance of all the changes, but so little is happening. At the same time, I see hopeful things. For instance, the way consumers view sustainability issues has changed enormously. Acceptance is growing and that is the start of a transition. Behaviour doesn’t change overnight, but I do see movement.”

Over Marleen Onwezen

Marleen Onwezen grew up in Tiel, studied social psychology at Tilburg University, received a master in economic psychology and started working at Wageningen Economic Research (WEcR) in 2009. After a year she started a part-time PhD at the Economics and household group at Wageningen University. She received her PhD on emotions and sustainable consumer choices in 2014. Now she is theme ambassador for consumer science and expert leader for both WEcR and WFBR, and leading large-scale projects on consumer choices for sustainable and healthy food. She is figure head of the Dutch Scientific Agenda (NWA) competent consumers. Also, she is part of an advisory committee for sustainable consumers choices for the ministries, part of the advisory board of the Food Education Platform, and part of the core team healthy and safe food systems of WUR.

Building bridges

Onwezen loves working together. “That makes everything better and more fun.” She sees the new opportunity as a possibility to make, or strengthen, all new connections. Strengthening cooperation between the university and Wageningen Research, connecting science and society, and connecting economics and psychology. She is looking forward to start with this.