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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

Sustainable consumption

Society needs rapid, transformational change to reverse the precipitous decline of nature and accelerating climate change. Consumption, driven by an increasing population, globalisation, shifting cultures and increasing affluence, is a primary driver of the climate and ecological crises.

Reducing our carbon footprint and impacts on biodiversity can feel like an uphill struggle for citizens, but we simultaneously expect choice and year-round product availability. Bananas, coffee, cocoa and tea, once luxury products, are now staples found in almost every supermarket basket. Supermarket retailers have evolved to meet this customer demand, offering large product lines and ensuring these products are available and affordable. Customers have become disengaged from the production journey, whether it be intensively-reared salmon or bananas shipped halfway around the world on atmosphere-controlled ships.

Supermarkets can implement policies and systemic change which make sustainable behaviours easier to achieve. They are powerful actors and their decisions can shape our purchasing decisions and determine which products we have ready access to. Combating climate change and biodiversity loss can only be achieved through a significant change in human behaviour. For this to be successful the solutions must be rooted in an understanding of psychology and what enables successful long-term behavioural changes.

Applications in practice

  • Future risk and opportunity
  • Business strategies and model
  • Measures, targets and disclosure

Contribution to CISL’s core research themes

Net zeroZero carbon


Protection of natureProtection of nature






About the project

Globally, increasing consumption has doubled resource extraction from our planet, impacting the natural world. Customers have never had more choice; the average supermarket stocks tens of thousands of products. Different foods—particularly protein-rich foods such as meat, seafood and legumes—have a wide range of environmental impacts. Better choices by consumers at the supermarket can help fight climate change and the loss of nature. Many citizens profess a desire to act more sustainably, but there exists an implementation gap. How can supermarkets help reduce this gap by making it easier for customers to act on their intentions? This project proposes to test promising approaches online and in stores to catalyse sustainable citizen behaviour.

Impact and relevance

This project will produce cutting-edge research on the climate and biodiversity impacts of supermarket sourcing and customer purchases, and results on which approaches are most effective to increase sustainable purchases. These insights will be valuable across the retail sector for businesses looking to reduce their environmental impacts.


This research project will consist of a series of interconnected studies which address the question: how can supermarkets and other retailers support the transition and encourage a shift towards more sustainable shopping habits? Supermarkets provide an excellent environment to test the effectiveness of different approaches.

This project will carry out two workstreams:

Characterising the biodiversity and climate impacts of key commodities in Sainsbury’s supply chains, thereby informing Sainsbury’s sourcing and stocking decisions.

  1. Conducting online and in-store behavioural experiments which will ultimately empower citizens to make more sustainable choices.
  2. Outputs

It is anticipated that this project will produce academic publications and solutions that supermarkets can implement. Potential outputs could include:

  • Academic papers produced for a specialist audience.
  • Media articles produced to translate and promote the work to a general audience.
  • Conference presentations, including both academic and industry conferences.
  • Business-focused briefs laying out a roadmap for driving sustainable consumption choices, including detailed case studies.

Collaborators and funding

This work is supported by a philanthropic gift from Sainsbury’s. The project is collaborating with TRADE-Hub and CISL’s Business and Nature Team.


Dr Cath Tayleur, Senior Programme Manager, Business and Nature Team, CISL, Senior Advisor, The Prince of Wales Fellowship in sustainable consumption.


Dr Emma Garnett

The Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellow in Sustainable Consumption, supported by Sainsbury’s



“I think David Bowie put it perfectly: I demand a better future. Society could be so much greener and more equal. We still have just enough time to avoid a climate breakdown and it’s going to take every sector of society to build the future we want.”

Dr Emma Garnett

“How to engage consumers in sustainability? We continue to grapple with this question and welcome the chance to experiment further with CISL. Not only in this country where we sell our products, but right the way through to the places globally where they come from. Forming that connection – between consumer and producer – lies at the heart of the solution in our view.”

Judith Batchelar, Sainsbury’