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The role of information and consumer behaviour in the food system

  • Published on February 14, 2022

For World Food Day 2021, an international day celebrated annually on 16 October to commemorate the date of the founding of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1945, researchers on the CANDIES project take a closer look at consumer behaviour and sustainable food choices.

The food supply chain currently accounts for 26% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and has direct impacts on all our ecosystems. A major shift in food production and consumption is required to create food systems that operate within our planetary boundaries, supporting environmental sustainability rather than jeopardizing it. In this context, sustainable production and consumption is increasingly gaining attention as a means to transition towards more sustainable societies.


Does information shape consumer behaviour?

Consumers are increasingly presented with more information on the environmental impacts of the products they buy. The number of food labels has only increased, informing consumers about the agricultural practices, place of production, and even carbon footprint of products. This increased provision of information to consumers is often assumed to lead to better choices thanks to conscious and rational decision-making.


However, research shows that consumers often suffer from the knowledge-action and intention-behaviour gaps when shopping. This means that even if consumers intend to shop in a more sustainable way and are given the information needed to do so, it does not always translate into action. Shopping behaviours stretch far beyond intention, shaped by values and knowledge brought by information. Decisions are influenced by many factors in complex realities, such as budget, time, convenience, habit, mood, advertising and the surrounding environment. Furthermore, shopping decisions are a combination of rapid in-store decision-making and wider reflections made outside the store.


Moving beyond the focus on individual consumers

As such, the complexity of decision-making at the consumer level contradicts the idea that sustainable consumption can simply rely on consumer choices to pressure the market to shift towards more sustainable production methods. In fact, the expectation on consumers to transform society towards more sustainable systems via “green” consumption has been described as “consumer scapegoatism, pointing to the fact that a deep shift in consumption patterns requires the involvement of the whole food value chain. 


In recent years, the research field on value-chain sustainability has grown, highlighting the importance of involving all actors along the value chain to reach a sustainable food system. In particular, questions about transparency in value chains and green–washing has raised the question of where the responsibility lies when it comes to sustainable consumption and the role of retailers in sustainable food consumption.


The role of retailers in the transition to more sustainable food systems

Retailers and restaurateurs are central nodes of influence for sustainable consumption, by connecting their suppliers to consumers. They have an important role to play in using their purchasing power to select and influence their suppliers, as well as promoting certain foods products to the end consumer. Researchers found that retailer interventions are feasible and have a high potential impact on GHG emissions reductions. 


SEI’s CANDIES research project examines the choices and decision-making possibilities of retailers, their interactions with their customers and the information they provide them, efforts to measure and share information about GHG emissions along food supply chains, and whether and how new technologies and communication tools can help different actors along the value-chain shift toward a more sustainable food system. Emerging findings from the project suggest that retailers face similar complexities in their decision-making processes as consumers, highlighting that cultural, political and economic changes are needed on top of better supply-chain transparency to enable retailers to play a stronger role in shifting current consumption behaviours.


Changing consumption patterns – a systemic problem?

While clear, transparent and reliable product information is one contribution to transform consumption patterns, there are calls for wider systemic change to allow this information to permeate and impact decisions across the food supply chain. In this context, consumption should be viewed as a systemic problem, entrenched within economic and political systems in modern societies. Policies, regulations, corporate reporting standards and economic incentives all need to be addressed to achieve change at scale, moving beyond relying on complex individual consumer decision-making processes. 

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