Social norms have the power to guide individual behaviour and individual behaviour can also influence social norms.
6 August 2020
  • Consumer Information for SCP

Top five insights:

  • Soft policy approaches tend to be most effective in changing social norms
  • Consumer information tools must convey clear messages and explain what the problem is, how it can be addressed and what difference it will make
  • Effective consumer information tools inform, inspire behaviour change and increase carbon literacy
  • Climate activism can lead to a behaviour change that is powerful enough to change long-lived social norms

Social Norms and Personal Choices

People are highly influenced by their peer groups. Commonly accepted social norms affect human behaviours and influence decision making. A social norm is a pattern or behaviour that is typical to a social group. Interestingly, social norms often guide individual behaviour and decision making while at the same time, individual behaviour can also have the power to influence and change the social norms of a group.

Changing Social Norms

Policy makers can use three different approaches to try to influence social norms. Soft policy approaches are voluntary mechanisms that place the responsibility for outcomes of consumption with the consumer. This can be done through public debates, advertisement and information tools. To the contrary, Command-and-control approaches and Market-based approaches are enforced respectively by legislation or standards and include emissions trading, taxation or setting baselines according to environmental and social performance. Research has shown that consumers are generally more averse to command-and-control and market-based approaches than to soft policy approaches.

In order to encourage change in consumer behaviour, soft policy approaches attempt to influence social norms through various strategies:

  • Avoidance – consumers stop to consume certain items
  • Shift – consumers consume less carbon intense products 
  • Save – consumers use products for a longer time and thereby reduce carbon emissions 
  • Consideration – spill-over effects of one behaviour influencing others
  • Vote – consumers empower political parties that advocate for policies to reduce consumption

Information Tools and Changes in Consumer Behaviour

There is clear evidence that informational campaigns affect consumer choices and that this effect can be strengthened by improving the efficiency of consumer information tools. Effective consumer information tools must consider the complexity of consumer psychology, as well as gender norms, cultural context and location, nationality and sociodemographic characteristics.

Consumer information tools that aim at changing consumer behaviour should work towards three goals. Firstly, they should reliably inform consumers about product characteristics. Secondly, consumers should be inspired to make less carbon intensive decisions and lastly, consumer information tools should aim at increasing carbon literacy. To reach these goals, consumer information tools must convey clear messages and explain what the problem is, how it can be addressed and what difference it will make. 

The Power of Flight Shame

Recent discussions on climate change frequently highlighted that flying is one of the most energy intense human activities. Once being associated with high social status; frequent air travel can nowadays be seen as weighing personal benefits over wider societal goals. Driven by climate activism, the newly coined term flight shame points out flying as an environmentally harmful activity. In Sweden, flight shame has contributed to a decrease in domestic air travel of up to 15.4% per month between 2018 and 2019, showing the influence changes in social norms can have on behaviour. 


To learn more about the importance of social norms and personal choices, download our infographic!

The Consumer Information programme has prepared six infographics which summarise some of the key findings of the report “Consumer Information Tools and Climate Change – Facilitating low-carbon choices in Tourism, Buildings and Food Systems” related to different topics.

Share these infographics to promote the findings of the report and help us spread the word!

The Report

The report is an output of the Consumer Information programme of the One Planet network and was developed through a collaborative effort among the Consumer Information, Sustainable Buildings & Constructions, Sustainable Food Systems and Sustainable Tourism programmes. The effort was led by the United Nations Environment Programme.

The report details how the use of consumer information tools can support greenhouse gas emission reductions in three sectors – Tourism, Buildings and Food. It serves as a guidance for policy makers and business leaders.

You can download the full version of the report here.

  • Consumer Information for SCP
Climate Change