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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Sustainable consumption

Society needs rapid, transformational change to reverse the precipitous decline of nature and accelerating climate change. Excessive consumption 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. 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, significantly 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?

Impact and relevance

This project is producing cutting-edge research on the climate and land use impacts of supermarket products and customer purchases, exploring the promises and pitfalls of different approaches to enable sustainable consumption. These insights will be valuable across the retail sector for businesses and policymakers looking to reduce environmental impacts. Despite the absence of commitments on food and climate change at COP26, civil society and businesses are aware that the food system requires significant changes to achieve sustainability. This was recently highlighted in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy Report for England. The focus of the Fellowship—estimating the environmental impacts of food products and understanding the efficacy of different approaches to enabling sustainable consumption—is therefore highly relevant to developing leadership capacity in the food retail sector.


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.

Outputs to date include:

E Garnett & A Balmford (2022) The vital role of organisations in protecting climate and nature. Nature Human Behaviour

E Garnett (2021) Meat eating is a big climate issue, but isn’t getting the attention it deserves. The Conversation

K Smith, P Scheelbeek, A Balmford, E Garnett (2021) Discrepancies between two long-term dietary datasets in the United Kingdom (UK) Wellcome Open Research

T Marteau, N Chater, E Garnett (2021) Changing Behaviour for Net Zero 2050 BMJ

Collaborators and funding

This work is supported by a philanthropic gift from Sainsbury’s. The project is collaborating with CISL’s Business and Nature Team and academics in the departments of Zoology, Geography, MRC Epidemiology and Public Health.

This Fellowship builds on the work of former Prince of Wales Fellow in Sustainable Consumption, Dr Emma Garnett.

“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’