Sustainable Consumer Behavior: Go Big or Go Home?

By Laura Krumm

In recent years, news on issues such as climate change, environmental degradation and plastic pollution was almost inescapable. At least in Europe, newspapers reported on environmental topics regularly, political discussions often revolved around greenhouse gas emissions or environmental policy, and sustainability content creators gained large numbers of followers on social media with tips on package-free grocery shopping and vegan recipes. Additionally, with Fridays for Future, environmental issues inspired one of the largest youth movements to date. It is fair to say that almost everyone is talking about the environmental issues we are currently facing.

The role of consumption

With almost everyone talking about environmental issues, most have understood that our consumption behavior in the industrialized world is a major cause of environmental problems. After all, the issue of climate change is an issue of consumption. Almost three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions originate from household consumption (1). A change in consumption behavior, therefore, is deemed necessary to have a chance of mitigating climate change.

Even though environmental beliefs and values are increasing, consumers often do not follow through and translate their attitudes into environmental behavior. Many scholars are concerned with this phenomenon, often termed attitude-behavior gap or value-action gap (2, 3). This gap is frequently calculated by subtracting the market share of sustainable goods, e.g., organic produce, from the percentage of consumers having an intention to buy those products. The estimated size of the gap ranges mostly around the 30% mark (4, 5).

If consumers acted according to their attitudes, the market share of sustainable products would, therefore, increase by 30 %, which would certainly have a substantial environmental impact. Is it, however, enough to focus on closing the attitude-behavior gap? Unfortunately, no.

How sustainable are we really?

Behaviors commonly considered as sustainable, such as bringing our own reusable shopping bag instead of using the plastic bags provided by the store, might not have the big environmental influence we think they have. Bilharz and Schmitt have termed such actions as the “peanuts of sustainable consumption” (6). Often, consumers that identify themselves as “green” have similar ecological footprints to consumers who do not identify themselves as “green” (6, 7).

A green self-image, although associated with higher rates of some environmental behaviors, is therefore often misleading.

This can be problematic. If consumers with high attitudes towards sustainable consumption overestimate their own positive impact and already perceive themselves as sustainable after performing relatively low-impact sustainable behaviors, such as stopping the water while brushing their teeth or using a reusable tote bag for shopping, the motivation for bigger steps might be reduced. While these small behaviors are important actions and first steps in the right direction, they are only that: first steps. To mitigate climate change and solve other environmental issues, more drastic measures will be necessary.

Focus on high-impact behaviors instead of low-hanging fruits

Some researchers, therefore, suggest to reduce the focus on the intent-based view of sustainable behavior (e.g., environmental attitudes or motivations) and rather take a more impact-based perspective (8). In that case, the actual environmental effects of certain behaviors and actions are assessed in the form of, e.g., emitted greenhouse gases or ecological footprint calculations. An impact ranking of sustainable behaviors can then give insightful information, which behaviors to give priority.

A recent study found, e.g., that a change towards a vegan diet has the potential to mitigate up to 14% of European carbon emissions, whereas a change towards exclusively purchasing organic food has the potential to mitigate 2% (9). While this certainly does not mean that organic food products are not important and we should stop buying them, a focus on them will not suffice to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

This change in perspective is not only important for consumers themselves, but also for companies, research and policy. While, e.g., an EU-wide ban of single-use plastic or company initiatives to eliminate plastic bags in some supermarkets have a considerable positive impact on the problem of plastic pollution, it is by far not enough.

Even though the probable consequences of climate change are well known and already start to become apparent, countries and governments still fail to adopt effective measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (10).

An enhanced focus on high-impact behaviors and actions can help political institutions, research organizations and consumer education strategies achieve their sustainability goals. While it is certainly necessary to address small and easily implementable changes, they should not distract us from tackling the big consumption challenges (11).

About the author

Laura Krumm is a PhD fellow at the Department of Management, Society and Communication and part of the Consumer & Behavioural Insights Group at CBS Sustainability. Her research interests lie in the fields of sustainable consumption behaviour and policy.


(1) Hertwich, E.G. and Peters, G.P., 2009 – Carbon Footprint of Nations: A Global, Trade-Linked Analysis, in: Environmental Science and Technology, 43(16), 6414-6420.

(2) Kollmuss, A. and Agyeman, J., 2002 – Mind the Gap: Why Do People Act Environmentally and What are the Barriers to Pro-Environmental Behavior?, in: Environmental Education Research, 8(3), 239-260.

(3) Huddart Kennedy, E., Beckley, T.M., McFarlane, B.L. and Nadeau, S., 2009 – Why We Don’t “Walk the Talk”: Understanding the Environmental Values/Behaviour Gap in Canada, in: Human Ecology Review, 16(2), 151-160.

(4) Carrington, M.J., Neville, B.A. and Whitwell, G.J., 2010 – Why Ethical Consumers Don’t Walk Their Talk: Towards a Framework for Understanding the Gap Between the Ethical Purchase Intentions and Actual Buying Behaviour of Ethically Minded Consumers, in: Journal of Business Ethics, 97(1), 139-158.

(5) Young, W., Hwang, K., McDonald, S. and Oates C.J., 2010 – Sustainable Consumption: Green Consumer Behaviour when Purchasing Products, in: Sustainable Development, 18(1), 20-31.

(6) Bilharz, M. and Schmitt, K., 2011 – Going Big with Big Matters, in: GAIA, 20(4), 232-235.

(7) Gatersleben, B., Steg, L. and Vlek C., 2002 – Measurement and Determinants of Environmentally Significant Consumer Behavior, in: Environment and Behavior, 34(3), 335-362.

(8) Moser, S. and Kleinhückelkotten, S., 2018 – Good Intents, but Low Impacts: Diverging Importance of Motivational and Socioeconomic Determinants Explaining Pro-Environmental Behavior, Energy Use, and Carbon Footprint

(9) Vita, G., Lundström, J.R., Hertwich, E.G., Quist, J., Ivanova, D., Stadler, K. and Wood, R.,  2019 – The Environmental Impact of Green Consumption and Sufficiency Lifestyles Scenarios in Europe: Connecting Local Sustainability Visions to Global Consequences, in: Ecological Economics, 164, 106322.

(10) UN Environment Programme, 2019 – Emissions Gap Report

(11) Centre for Behavior & the Environment, 2018 – Climate Change Needs Behavior Change: Making the Case For Behavioral Solutions to Reduce Global Warming

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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