19 January 2017

[Report] Consuming Differently, Consuming Sustainably: Behavioural Insights for Policymaking

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The objective of this report, published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is to shed light on opportunities to strengthen the effectiveness of policies for sustainable consumption in both developed and developing countries. The publication provides evidence-based insights from behavioural science, detailing five key behavioural barriers to sustainable consumption. It also includes concrete examples of how behavioural science has been successfully coupled with policy action to cost-effectively achieve sustainable consumption.

Executive summary

Human demands on Earth’s natural resources have outpaced what can be produced. A shift to more sustainable growth is dependent on changes in current patterns of both production and consumption. While recent policy has largely focused on addressing production and supply, consumption and demand must also be addressed. Today, in less than nine months, we consume more resources than our planet produces in a year, and our rate of consumption continues to grow. We are in a time of flux in the world economy, where the growth of emerging economies is driving a rise in consumption across the globe. An increasing number of households in developing economies are joining the consuming class; experts estimate 2-3 billion additional middle-class consumers will be added by 2050.

This growth in demand and consumption of our planet’s natural resources is unsustainable in the long term. Solving this problem is vital to the future of our and other species. As such, we must develop strategies to decouple economic growth and human wellbeing from the unsustainable use of natural resources. In September 2015, this critical goal was reaffirmed by the international community at the UN Sustainable Development Summit, with the adoption of Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the recognition of Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) as an essential building block across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 10 Year Framework of Programmes on SCP patterns (10YFP), which brings together over 450 actors from all over the world, is an essential platform for action to support the achievement of the SDGs through the shift towards SCP in all countries. In view of the importance of behavioural insights for consumer information, this publication is developed in cooperation with the Consumer Information Programme for Sustainable Consumption and Production (CI-SCP) of the 10 Year Framework of Programmes on SCP.

The objective of this publication is to shed light on opportunities to strengthen the effectiveness of policies for sustainable consumption in both developed and developing countries. The publication provides evidence-based insights from behavioural science, detailing five key behavioural barriers to sustainable consumption. It also includes concrete examples of how behavioural science has been successfully coupled with policy to cost-effectively achieve sustainable consumption.

Today, inequalities in consumption exist across and within countries—with countries facing the simultaneous challenges of over and underconsumption. Keeping this reality in mind, the opportunities to shift consumer behaviour are immense. Each day, across the world, individuals make small choices and take small actions that have, as a whole, momentous impacts on our planet’s natural resources. Policies that focus on shifting these everyday behaviours toward more sustainable outcomes are crucial to achieving more sustainable consumption patterns.

Yet changing human behaviour is often challenging. As humans, we do not always make standard decisions or behave in predictable ways. The field of behavioural science, which includes behavioural economics, psychology, and other social sciences, offers practical insights for designing policies that are better aligned with human decision-making processes. Behaviourally informed policy tools can help consumers better evaluate costs and benefits and act on their preferences, enhancing the effectiveness of government interventions. Already, an increasing number of governments, with developed countries taking the lead, across the world are incorporating behavioural science into many aspects of their policymaking.

Understanding human behaviour is crucial to achieving sustainable consumption. For example, what might prevent an individual who generally understands the importance of sustainability, and has access to sustainable options, from shifting their behaviour? This phenomenon is seen in both developed and developing countries—despite knowing what is best for the wellbeing of themselves and their communities, many people do not take the optimal action. Behavioural science demonstrates how the influence of context (mental, social, and physical) and the mental shortcuts used by the human mind can result in otherwise unpredictable outcomes in our individual behaviour.

This paper describes in detail the five following ways that behavioural barriers might affect decision-making about sustainable consumption:

  1. Many “choices” in consumption are often habitual behaviours;
  2. Consequences of consumption are often hard to see;
  3. Sustainable consumption may not seem personally relevant;
  4. Behaviour is influenced by peers and social groups; and
  5. It can be hard to follow through on sustainable choices.

Designing policy and interventions to address these barriers can lead to cost-effective and practical solutions.

This report includes several examples of solutions successfully applied to key consumption areas, including energy, water, transportation and mobility, food and diet, and waste and disposal. There are many more opportunities to apply behavioural approaches to shift consumption patterns. For example, few behavioural applications have thus far focused on managing the unsustainable consumption of low-quality, disposable consumer goods. Even more critically, to date behavioural insights have disproportionately focused on developed countries, while there are many opportunities to apply behavioural insights in developing countries.

This paper ends with a call to action to policymakers and practitioners. It offers three broad recommendations to achieve better outcomes in sustainable consumption policy:

  1. Incorporate behavioural science into policy processes and tools;
  2. Build internal behavioural policy capacity within policymaking entities; and
  3. Expand behavioural science research efforts and dissemination.

Achieving sustainable consumption will require great global effort — it is critical that we employ all of the tools at our disposal. By using the deep understanding of decision-making offered by behavioural science, policymakers can design more effective policies to shift consumption patterns and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


The publication was developed with the support of the European Commission under the supervision of the Secretariat of the 10
Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production patterns (10YFP on SCP) within the Economy Division
of UN Environment, in cooperation with the 10YFP Programme on Consumer Information for SCP.

The publication was authored by Kanyinsola Aibana, Jamie Kimmel, and Sarah Welch of ideas42. ideas42 is a not-for-profit behavioural design and consulting firm headquartered in New York that uses insights from behavioural science to achieve social impact in a broad set of domains across the world.

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