Wiltrud Terlau and Darya Hirsch
Sustainable Consumption and the Attitude-Behaviour-Gap Phenomenon -
Causes and Measurements towards a Sustainable Development
Wiltrud Terlau, Darya Hirsch
International Centre for Sustainable Development – IZNE -, Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences,
Sustainable development needs sustainable production and sustainable consumption. During the last decades
the encouragement of sustainable production has been the focus of research and policy makers under the
implicit assumption that the observable increasing ‘green’ values of consumers would also entail a growing
sustainable consumption. However, it has been found that the actual purchasing behaviour often deviates from
‘green’ attitudes. This phenomenon is called the attitude-behaviour gap. It is influenced by individual, social
and situational factors. The main purchasing barriers for sustainable (organic) food are price, lack of immediate
availability, sensory criteria, lack or overload of information as well as the low-involvement feature of food
products in conjunction with well-established consumption routines, lack of transparency and trust towards
labels and certifications. The last three barriers are mainly of a psychological nature. Especially the low-
involvement feature of food products due to daily purchase routines and relatively low prices tends to result in
fast, automatic and subconscious decisions based on a so-called human mental system 1, derived from Daniel
model in behavioural psychology. In contrast, the human mental system 2 is especially important
for the transformations of individual behaviour towards a more sustainable consumption. Decisions based on
the human mental system 2 are slow, logical, rational, conscious and arduous. This so-called dual action model
also influences the reliability of responses in consumer surveys. It seems that the consumer behaviour is the
most unstable and unpredictable part of the entire supply chain and requires special attention. Concrete
measures to influence consumer behaviour towards sustainable consumption are highly complex. This paper
presents a review of interdisciplinary research literature on the complexity of sustainable food consumption
and an empirical analysis of selected countries worldwide. In a ‘best practice’ case study, it analyses the organic
food sector in Denmark, especially in the 80ies and 90ies, where the market share rose to a leading position
worldwide. The Danish example demonstrates that common efforts and a shared responsibility of consumers,
business, interdisciplinary researchers, mass media and policy are needed. It takes pioneers of change who
succeed in assembling a ‘critical mass’ willing to increase its ‘sustainable’ behaviour. Considering the strong
psychological barriers of consumers and the continuing low market share of organic food, proactive policy
measures would be conducive to foster the personal responsibility of the consumers and offer incentives
towards a sustainable production. Also, further self-obligations of companies (Corporate Social Responsibility –
CSR) as well as more transparency and simplification of reliable labels and certifications are needed to
encourage the process towards a sustainable development.
Key words: Sustainable development; responsible consumer; homo oeconomicus; behavioural economics;
interdisciplinarity; consumer decision models; attitude-behaviour-gap; organic food; asymmetric information;
low-involvement products; consumer behaviour; ethical values; dual action model: mental system 1 and 2
(Kahneman); cognitive bias; cognitive dissonances; Danish Association of Organic Farming; nudges; change
agents; proactive state; corporate social responsibility (CSR)
1 email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
2 Nobel-Prize laureate in Behavioural Economics
Wiltrud Terlau and Darya Hirsch
Current global challenges such as climate change, lack of resources, desertification, land degradation as well as
loss of biodiversity can ultimately be due to human actions. Reasons are excessive production and consumption
of goods and services, along with using and consuming natural resources, causing emissions and waste
products. Demand in the form of consumption and supply in the form of production are closely intertwined.
Changes in consumer behaviour, technological and organisational innovations as well as an appropriate
political and economic framework are of major importance for a sustainable development based on
responsible demand and supply. Interdisciplinary cooperation between such disciplines as psychology,
anthropology, sociology, neurology, evolutionary and behavioural economics as well as marketing is required.
Sustainable or responsible consumption implies the satisfaction of personal needs without an adverse impact
on the lives and consumption potentials of present and future generations and complies therefore with the
principles of sustainability (Agenda 21, 1992; Belz et al., 2007; Belz and Peattie, 2009). The responsible
consumer tries to consider equally economic (in terms of personal welfare), ecological (including animal
welfare) as well as social aspects across the entire consumption chain such as type and number of products,
their use and disposal.3
His decisions are dependent on underlying strategies. The consistency strategy refers
to products where the production process is in line with nature, such as renewable energies and organic
products. The sufficiency strategy refers to consumer abandonment (boycott of certain food companies) or a
reduced consumption practice. The efficiency strategy is based on the efficient use of energy and products and
selection of low environmental impact equipment or services (Unmüßig et al., 2012). The latter can lead to
rebound effects with an offsetting behaviour and increased consumption (Balderjahn, 2013; Pufe, 2012).
When it comes to the actual purchase of sustainable products, a clear inconsistency between attitudes towards
sustainable consumption and actual behaviour is observed. This phenomenon is called the attitude-behaviour-
gap. For example while, in different surveys, 30% to 50% of consumers indicate their intention to buy
sustainable products, the market share of these goods is often less than 5% of the total sales (Carrington et al.,
2010; Young et al., 2010). This phenomenon is also confirmed by international studies (e.g. Greenindex, 2012;
see also figure 3).
The reasons for this behaviour gap have not yet been sufficiently researched. On the one hand it is possible
that the respondents answer to comply with accepted social norms and this is not reflected in their individual
consumption behaviour (Carrington et al., 2010). But apart from the social desirability of respondents within
the surveys, studies on consumer behaviour emphasise that consumers are increasingly motivated to buy
organic food products (Cottingham and Winkler, 2007; Hughner et al., 2007; Naspetti and Zanoli, 2009;
Oughton and Ritson, 2007; Schöberl, 2012). On the other hand there may be special purchasing barriers,
especially in everyday consumption, which complicate sustainable behaviour.
The goal of this paper is to illustrate and analyse the gap between purchase attitudes and actual buying
behaviour of responsible consumers and derive appropriate recommendations. It is based on reviews of
interdisciplinary research literature on behavioural psychology, behavioural economics and consumer
behaviour with a view to sustainable food. The example of Denmark serves as a ‘best practice’ case study to
illustrate how sustainable food consumption can be encouraged.
3 Additionally, the individual has a double function, beeing a consumer of goods and services as well as a citizen; Heidbrink
und Schmidt 2011
Wiltrud Terlau and Darya Hirsch
Decision-Model of Sustainable Consumption: Determinants and Motivations
The observed sustainable consumption contradicts the basic key assumptions of traditional economics. It
implies a rationally acting consumer who strives to maximise his own expected profit, the so-called homo
oeconomicus. The new behavioural economics, which deals explicitly with the human behaviour in the
economic decision-making processes, detects in many studies systemic behavioural deviations due to ‘cognitive
bias’ or ethical values. They result from or are expressed in our herd instinct, over-optimism, illusion of control,
short-term oriented behaviour, addictive behaviour as well as fairness and ethical (sustainable) behaviour
(Kahneman and Tversky, 2003; BMELV, 2008, Ruckriegel, 2011).
Attempts to explain or change behaviour towards a more sustainable consumption must start off with the
diverse and interdependent influence quantities of sustainable consumption. Figure 1 gives an overview of a
general decision-making model of sustainable consumption derived from different studies. It implies that
beliefs lead to attitudes, which in their turn derive intentions. Intentions determine the actual buying
behaviour. Many different individual, social and situational factors influence this decision process.
Individual determinants cover socio-economic characteristics such as age, sex, education and income;
needs and wants, motivation, personal values and norms, habits, abilities to act (cognitive, time, price,
and obtaining information) as well as action control in terms of ability to implement attitude or
intention to buy.
Social quantities cover societal norms, embedding into cultural context as well as mass media with its
Situational parameters relate to the act of the purchase, such as the purchase situation (e.g. visibility of
products on retail shelves), incentives (e.g. political incentives) as well as consumption options (e.g.
availability of sustainable products).
Figure 1: Decision-making model of sustainable consumption
(based on Balderjahn, 2013; Carrington et al., 2010; Vermeier and Verbeke, 2006)
Nevertheless it is observed that attitudes towards sustainable consumption deviate from the actual
consumption behaviour. This inconsistency is called attitude-behaviour-gap or attitude-intention-behaviour
gap (Follows and Jobber, 2000; Carrigan and Attala, 2001; Gupta and Ogden, 2006; Auger and Devinny, 2007;
Carrington et al., 2010; Balderjahn and Peyer, 2012, 2012a).
•Control of action
Attitude Intention Behaviour
Wiltrud Terlau and Darya Hirsch
Many different explanations focus on special aspects of sustainable consumption. For example
Bamberg and Möser (2007) focus on environmentally compatible consumption based on Schwartz
(1977) and Ajzen (1991). Parameters for such consumption are attitude (environmental awareness),
personal action control (ability to act) and personal moral norm.
Carrington, Neville and Whitwell (2010) analyse linkages between purchase intention and consumption.
They also take situational contexts into account.
Balderjahn and Peyer (2012) focus on the social, fair consumption awareness based on the adequacy-
importance models developed by Foscht and Swoboda (2011). It assumes that ‘belief’ and ‘importance’
have a major influence on the consumer’s attitude. The ‘belief’ component assumes that the production
took place under fair labour conditions, whereas the ‘importance’ component relates to personal values
of fair production. When adding up the individual components, the result is the awareness of a
consumer or population group of a fair consumption.
It is important to note that there is no classic organic consumer or classic bio-consumer. And it is not only the
socio-demographic characteristics which differentiate between consumers of organic (sustainable) food
(Aertsens et al., 2009; Buder et al., 2010; Hoffmann and Spiller, 2010). Depending on purchase intensity, there
are different groups of consumers such as intensive buyers, occasional consumers and non-buyers. They may
have similar consumption motivations and attitudes (GfK Panels, 2012, 2013, 2014; Hübsch 2013), summarized
by Schöberl (2012) as follows:
• Health: all aspects associated with health and personal well-being. Consumers are of the opinion that
organic food is more wholesome than its conventional “counterpart” (Hughner et al., 2007; Oughton
and Ritson, 2007). This assumption relates esp. to vegetables and fruits (Naspetti and Zanoli, 2009).
• Taste: associations with real/genuine taste and good texture (Schöberl, 2012) as well as naturalness
and authenticity (Asioli et al., 2011).
• Animal welfare: different concerns about animal rights and animal welfare issues. Beside the purely
ethical component, consumers are of the opinion that products from species-appropriate husbandry
are healthier and tastier (Naspetti and Zanoli, 2009). At this point it is shown that different buying
motives for organic food cannot be viewed independently.
• Environmental protection and locally produced food: without chemical contamination, but also
shorter transport and potentially higher production quality.
• Affinity to fair trade: Consumers often associate organic agriculture with other ethical principles, such
as fair trade. However this connection cannot be guaranteed (e.g. EU organic label) (Oughton and
Ritson, 2007; Cottingham and Winkler, 2007).
The following sections of this paper are based on an interdisciplinary research and empirical analysis of
selected countries worldwide. A more in-depth investigation of the Danish ‘best-practice’ example highlights
increasingly widespread national organic food consumption. Possibilities of closing the attitude-behaviour-gap
and appropriate measures are discussed.
Sustainable Consumption: Causes and Barriers
Greater (environmental and social) consumer awareness fosters the attitude building towards more
sustainable products, the intention to buy and actual purchases of such products. For example in Germany an
increased sustainable and ethical consumer awareness of food products are obvious (see figure 2). According
to study results, consumers look more consciously for these products and the importance of regional products
continues to grow significantly.
Wiltrud Terlau and Darya Hirsch
Figure 2: Consumption awareness of sustainable food, approval in %
(based on GFK 2013, 2014)
However, in a number of studies consumers have tended to overstate when answering questions about their
(sustainable or organic) consumption attitude. For example, in the Greenindex4
(2012) the percentage of
respondents who describe themselves as ‘green’ is significantly higher than the actual ‘green’ purchasers; see
Figure 3: Attitude-Behaviour-Gap (Consumers with green attitude versus average actual green consumer behaviour in %
(based on Greenindex, 2012)
4 To determine the Greenindex, 17.000 consumers in 17 countries (1.000 per country) were questioned about their
consumer behaviour, effects, knowledge and awareness/attitude in the areas of household, mobility, nutrition and
Organic-Orientation FairtradeOrganic-Orientation Conscious purchase
1“When I buy food I prefer organic products“. “I am willing to spend more money for organic products”.
2“I consciously buy fair trade products”.. “I am willing to spend more money on fair trade products”.
3 “I am willing to spend more money for food from my region”.
4“I consciously buy less food ahead so that I will not throw away so much.”
Wiltrud Terlau and Darya Hirsch
Also, data on the market share of organic food confirm that the willingness to buy environmentally and socially
sustainable food products is different from the preferences expressed (see figure 4). A worldwide comparison
of the market share of organic food showed a relatively small proportion of organic food in the domestic food
markets. According to the IFOAM and FIBL the largest consumers of organic foods are the Scandinavian and
Alpine countries (Willer and Kilcher, 2012). In recent years, the highest market shares of organic food were
reached in Denmark (7,6 %), Austria (6,5 %) and Switzerland (6,3 %) (see figure 4). In absolute values, the
highest per capita consumption of organic food in 2012 was found in Denmark (189 Euros/month), Switzerland
(159 Euros/month) and in Luxembourg (143 Euros/month). The general consumer expenditure share on food
and beverages in these selected countries is on average between 10-15%, except for the USA with 6,6%. Food
spending is relatively similar e.g. in Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany. Countries with the
highest spending on food, such as Japan, Spain, Italy, France show the lowest market shares in organic food.
And although the food expenditure share is relatively low, the higher price for organic food is still one of the
most important purchasing obstacles (see next section).
Figure 4: Market share of organic products and consumer expenditure share of food
and beverages in % across selected European countries, 2012
(based on Japanese data only for 2008; Agriculture a. Agri-Food Canada, 2008 (for Japan); USDA GAIN Report
Japan, 2013; OrganicDataNetwork Survey, 2013; FiBL-AMI Survey, 2014; US Depart. of Agriculture; Migros
Sustainability Magazine; Stat. Portal of Luxembourg; Japantoday 2015)
The fact that the market share for organic food is smaller than the preferences expressed and that a large
number of the households questioned only occasionally buy organic food shows that purchasing barriers exist,
which discourage consumers from buying more organic products. There are already a number of studies which
attempt an overall assessment and focus on individual aspects (E. g. Areni and Black, 2008; De Pelsmacke and
Janssens, 2007; Shaw and Shui, 2002; Carrington et al., 2010; Vermeir and Verbeke, 2006; Young et al., 2010;
Gupta and Ogden, 2006; Valor, 2008; Ahaus et al., 2011; Balderjahn, 2013). Apart from personal and societal
influence factors, the main barriers are as follows:
• Higher prices/ relatively high price premium: The vast majority of existing surveys on organic food
consumption agrees that organic food is more expensive than conventional products. This constitutes
the most important purchase barrier (Aertsens et al., 2009; Baranek, 2007; Hassan et al., 2009;
0 3 6 9 12 15
Market share of organic food Food spending in percentage
Wiltrud Terlau and Darya Hirsch
Hughner et al., 2007; Lea and Worsley, 2005; Lodorfos and Dennis, 2008; Padel and Foster, 2005;
Plassmann et al., 2009; Spiller, 2001; Nisen, 2007; Zanoli and Naspetti, 2002). The price gap between
comparable organic and conventional food is very different, depending on the product type:
Surcharges vary between fruits and vegetables, e.g. in 2002 between 13% for lemons and 108% for
potatoes, according to ZMP. But the highest surcharges exist for meat (ZMP, 2003). Different reactions
to prices show that the additional benefits of organic food is not obvious to occasional (cost sensitive)
• Taste/sensory criteria: The taste of organic food, which is an essential criterion for many organic food
buyers, is at the same time the most important sales obstacle for non-buyers, beside the higher prices.
Also sensory criteria play a role for occasional buyers. For example, some vegetables and fruits look
less attractive and are consequently perceived as less fresh. Organic noodles are perceived as less
tasty due to their whole meal content (Naspetti and Zanoli, 2009).
• Lack of availability of organic products: The availability of organic products varies depending on
where consumers shop and what they are looking for. It is likely that low sales in organic food are
partly due to this lack of availability. Organic food is not available everywhere or clearly visible on the
shelves. Consumers have to make an „extra” effort to buy in different shops. Convenience-oriented
consumers usually avoid this additional effort (Hughner et al., 2007; Chen, 2007; Zanoli, 2004; Zanoli
and Naspetti, 2002; Spiller, 2006).
• Lack/overload of information, transparency and associated lack of trust: Responsible consumers
have a special need for product information. On the one hand consumers feel insufficiently informed
about the environmental and social performance of (organic) food and have a high degree of
‘cognitive dissonance’. The latter leads to mental stress when consumers have to choose between
two equally attractive goods influenced by values, emotions, attitudes and intentions (Koths and Holl,
2012; Hughner et al., 2007; Baranek, 2007; Spiller, 2006; Honkanen et al., 2006). On the other hand
the consumers feel overwhelmed by the amount of information. Furthermore, there is a lack of
transparency and trust in labels and certifications due to asymmetrically distributed information
between producers/traders and consumers (Koths and Holl, 2012). Besides, satisfaction with
conventional food and lacking additional benefits from organic food prevent the purchase of organic
products (Honkanen et al., 2006).
• Food purchases in particular are characterized by well-established consumption routines (habits) and
by their low-involvement feature: Low-involvement products are low-priced, (often) frequently
purchased products and where the purchase decision is usually based on habits or prior experience
(Beharrell and Dennison, 1995; von Alvensleben, 1997; Verbeke and Vackier, 2004; Grebitus et al.,
2011 Schöberl, 2012).
Especially the low-involvement feature of food products and the tendency to avoid cognitive efforts lead to
thoughtless purchases. Derived from the general behavioural psychological decision-making model of Nobel-
Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman, the two different human mental systems (dual action model) are the main
causes of the attitude-behaviour-gap: mental system 1 (limbic system) is fast, automatic, subconscious and can
lead to a ‘cognitive bias’ and the use of heuristics whereas mental system 2 (cerebral cortex) is slow, logical,
arduous and conscious. Most of the daily life decisions are based on system 1. A behavioural change towards
sustainable consumption needs slow, logical, conscious and laborious decisions processed by the human
mental system 2. This dual action model might give also an explanation for the divergence of consumer survey
results and actual market share numbers. Apart from the suspicion that the respondents answer to comply
with accepted social norms (Carrington et al., 2010), it is also probable that these answers reflect their
conscious thoughts and desires resulting from mental system 2, whereas the actual purchasing behaviour is
strongly influenced by mental system 1. It needs cognitive efforts to buy products based on ethical values
(Young et al., 2010). At least at the beginning, sustainable consumption needs continual conscious decisions
and efforts (system 2). Strong ‘cognitive dissonances’5
(Festinger 1957), when purchase decisions are not in
line with ‘green’ values, are able to support this process. Mental stress may be the result. Individuals tend to
avoid such situations. Apparent solutions (illusions) may be the consequence, or if dissonances are sufficiently
strong, they can actually trigger behaviour changes. Therefore the creation of a strong ‘green’ awareness
among consumers is needed to overcome acquired (non-sustainable) habits and to facilitate behavioural
changes which pave the way for responsible actions (Kahneman 2012; Ruckriegel 2014).
5 Decisions, actions and information are not in line with values, attitudes and intentions; Festinger 1957
Wiltrud Terlau and Darya Hirsch
Best-Practice Case: Denmark
In this paper, the example of Denmark will be explored in more depth, exploring the above discussed barriers
of sustainable food consumption and possible options to close the attitude-behaviour gap.
Denmark is a country with a long tradition of organic farming. It is one of the top-ten European countries with
respect to the share of organic production compared to the total cultivated area. It is also the country with the
highest market share of organic products in the world. Between 1920-1940 and from 1960 onwards alternative
farming methods were particularly popular.6
The country experienced a widespread interest in natural living
and natural food in the 20’s, influenced by the ideas of biodynamic agriculture in Germany. A Biodynamic
Association was established by influential landowners from the aristocracy in 1936, but it remained quite
marginal. In Denmark the period between 1960 and 1970 was characterised by the development of organic
farming. Environmental concerns, especially the harmful environmental impact of modern, industrial farming
became an important issue on the agenda of environmental movements. Other stakeholders such as
fishermen, scientists and waterworks managers expressed their concerns about the environmental hazards
connected with modern farming. The environmental protection act passed in 1974 did not include agricultural
issues. Organic pioneers – urban people who had moved to the countryside - introduced a more sustainable
agriculture in the late 70’s. Production, sales and consumption of organic products during that time were less
than one percent. Nevertheless, it marked a turning point (Danish Agricultural Advisory Service (SEGES), 2015;
Danish Farmers’ Trade organisation, 2015; Jones, 2012).
In the 80’s and 90’s a number of changes were brought about at an institutional level: organic farming became
a political agenda. Groups of organic farmers and activists established the Danish Association for Organic
Farming (LØJ) in 1981. LØJ was active (almost as monopolist) in the area of formulating standards, inspections
and certification of organic goods using its own organic label until 1987.7 LØJ controlled organic sales and its
distribution through co-operatives, retailers, and direct farm selling (Michelsen, 2001, Ichihara Formsgaard,
2006). In 1987, the government adopted a law on a governmental certification scheme relating to organic
farms, organic producers and retailers (Organic Food Act). The same act ensured subsidies for farmers who
would convert to organic farming and its maintaining on the basis of the certification scheme.8 In parallel,
several acts regulating Danish agriculture, e.g. taxation of the use of pesticides and measures for the use of
fertilizers, were passed in 1987.9
Additional public measures were in particular funds for research, product
development, awareness campaigns and consulting activities (Tress 2001).
With respect to the Organic Food Act, LØJ played a significant role in the accrediting procedure. Furthermore
LØJ became a designated member of the newly established Organic Food Council (OFC), together with
representatives from the Ministries of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries and of Environment and Energy, retail
organisations and the consumers, other civil society organisations and experts. OFC is unique in its nature. It is
a consensus-building multilevel stakeholder forum, which creates a politically relevant platform for organic
farming. Until today the council serves as a platform for policy consensus building in organic farming. OFC
6 It should be noted, however, that organic farming between 1920 and 1940 also occurred in a number of other European
countries, e.g. in Germany; Michelsen et al. 2001
7 Until the mid-1990s in the area of organic dairy products, Ichihara Fomsgaard 2006.
8 The subsidies for conversion amounted to 140 ECU/ha/year whereas the maintenance of organic agriculture was
supported by 115 ECU/ha/year; Tress 2001, Daugbierg 2010
9 Also initiatives at the European Union level influenced the Danish production of organic food with the adaptation of rules
on organic production of vegetable and livestock in 2000; Tress 2001
Danish Association for Organic Farming
(Landsforeningen Økologisk Jordbrug, LØJ, today Økologisk Landsforening)
LØJ is the biggest Danish organic agriculture organization today. The membership of LØJ is principally open
to farmers, food-processing companies, consumers, academics and many others, in contrast to the
conventional farmers’ organizations who traditionally represent the exclusive interests of farmers. Danish
scientists state that LØJ re-invented cooperatives to manage production and distribution of goods. The co-
operative started to distribute organic food on a small scale. At the same time, the association began its
negotiations with the Danish government; Johansen and Ichihara Fomsgaard, 2002.
Wiltrud Terlau and Darya Hirsch
catalysed initiatives in different areas of the organic food production. E.g. OFC co-formulated the ’Action Plan
for Organic Farming’ with 65 recommendations to the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fishery to encourage
organic farming in Denmark in 1993 and 1999 (Kristensen and Nielsen, 1998).
However, in the late 90’s LØJ’s position weakened. The Danish government took over the certification of
organic food products. The Danish state control-label, red Ø-mark, was launched in 1990. It strengthened the
consumption of organic products, lead to more manufacturers and retailers being interested in producing and
selling organic products. Norfelt in 2003 emphasized the fact that in the case of the Ø-mark label it is the
Danish government which controls the farms and companies that produce, process, package or label organic
goods in Denmark (Norfelt, 2003). The success of the Danish Ø-mark lies in the distribution strategy of organic
The Danish FDP (United Danish Supermarket Cooperative, now Coop) started to offer discounted organic
products in 1993. Organic milk was the first Ø-label product sold in FDB. Promotion of organic products
became a business strategy of the FDB. They also ran a television campaign for ecological products at discount
prices in Denmark. This campaign stimulated sales (Hamm and Michelsen, 1996; Wier et al., 2002). The Danish
chains Dagli'Brugsen and SuperBrugsen followed the FDB organic retail initiative in 1996 and 1997. They
offered a 5% member bonus for every purchase of organic products. According to OrganicDenmark, the
discount retail chain Netto published a ‘special offers pamphlet’ in 1997, which contained only organic
products. A massive increase in the production and sales of organic milk and eggs in particular, was observed
between 1993 and 2003. The period after 2003 was characterised by a slight domestic stagnation in organic
dairy products due to overproduction. Besides, the export of organic products could not be expanded. Some
farms reduced their organic production areas. In 2004, a national campaign on the EU-logo of organic farming
was launched in Denmark. As of 2005, the sales of organic products in Danish supermarkets and discounters
increased with extended assortments.
Today organic farming in Denmark is still a key policy tool for water quality protection, pollution control,
climate change, biodiversity and green growth strategies. It is also in line with the Danish Rural Development
Plan. Additionally the new Danish Organic Action Plan 2020 aims to convert public catering, such as hospitals,
kindergartens, nurseries, canteens and schools towards providing organic food. According to OrganicDenmark,
in 2010 64% of the food served in Copenhagen institutions and canteens was organic.
Additionally, a New Nordic Cuisine, which embodies principles of quality, purity and ethics has become a novel
trend. Danish exports of organic product categories, especially dairy products, pork, grain and animal feed,
Danish Coop (FDB)
The Danish grocery market is mostly represented by supermarket chains, dominated by Coop (former
Forenede Danske Brugsforeninger, FDB), holding 40% of the market share. As a large consumer co-
operative it consists of several relatively independent chains and warehouses. FDB has a long tradition in
promoting consumer interests in terms of quality as well as cheap and safe products. In the 80’s, an
environmental profile was added, when FDB started to sell organic products as part of their range. In the
90’s, the promotion of organic products became an important part of their business strategy, and they have
played a significant role in the growing market for organic products in Denmark. FDB changed its name to
Coop Danmark A/S in 2002; Holm and Strauning, 2002.
The designation ‘organic' ((Ø for økologisk) and the Danish eco-label (the red Ø symbol) may only be used
for milk, meats, eggs, cereals, vegetables etc. from farms with authorized organic production. The
Department of Organic Farming checks that organic farms comply with the rules applicable to both organic
plant and animal husbandry. They inspect enterprises producing or marketing organic animal feed, seeds
and cereals, fertilisers and other non-food products. Approximately 98 % of the Danish consumers are
familiar with the “Ø”-label. Eight out of ten trust the label. A study shows that 85% of the consumers do not
trust foreign organic products without the Ø-label; Danish Ø-mark website, OrganicDenmark; YouGov on
behalf of the Danish Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries; Holm and Stauning, 2002;, Brunsø, 2002.
Wiltrud Terlau and Darya Hirsch
have increased with the total export rate of 46%, in particular due to dairy products, including eggs. In 2012,
Germany imported 52% of organic goods from Denmark. Danish exports of organic food exceed imports.
Statistics show that Denmark is in the position to provide organic food for 20 million people, which is four times
the total Danish population.
To summarise, the current Danish organic market has a long tradition. It started as a ‘grass-root’ development
in the late 70ies. The widespread and rapid development of this sector was/is the result of a proactive state
with an own labelling and certification programme, subsidies, taxation and funding of research, product
development, public awareness campaigns and consulting activities, as well as a strong cooperation among
different stakeholders. These are in particular the government authorities, farmers and retailers (e.g. consumer
cooperative Coop Denmark (FDB)) together with environmental and consumer organisations, research
institutes, food industry and others, such as public procurement.
Furthermore the current organic market in Denmark is characterised by the following important conditions for
a well-functioning organic market. Firstly, organic foods are primarily sold through conventional supermarkets,
ensuring stable supplies and promoting organic products in a location where the majority of consumers do
their shopping (Barrier: Lack of availability of organic products overcome). Secondly, there is a very well-
functioning and trustworthy labelling and certification programme (state Danish Ø-mark; Barrier:
Transparency and associated lack of trust overcome). Thirdly and finally, price premiums for organic products
such as dairy products, rye bread and eggs in Denmark are in most cases relatively low as result of the reforms
of 80ies and 90ies; e.g. due to farmers’ subsidies for organic production and reasonable offers in Danish
discounters’. Supermarkets lowered the prices of organic dairy, cereals and eggs by 15-20% (Hansen and
Sorensen, 1993) (Barrier: Higher price/ relatively high price premium overcome) (Michelsen et al., 1999; Wier
et al., 2002). 10
It seems that the consumer behaviour is the most unstable and unpredictable part of the entire supply chain
and requires special attention. Both, the causes of the observed attitude-behaviour-gap phenomenon as well
as possible solutions are exceedingly complex and require an interdisciplinary approach. Empirical analysis of
selected countries worldwide give further valuable information. The organic food sector in Denmark serves as a
‘best practice’ case, where especially in the 80ies and 90ies, the market share rose to a leading position
In summary the successful development of organic food and farming in Denmark is the result of pioneers, a
proactive state integrated in a joint strategic action, together with the agricultural, food and retailing sectors
(and the importance of the consumer cooperative Coop (FDB)), consumer and environmental organisations as
well as research institutions. Other important interested stakeholders, such as public catering and procurement
were also actively involved.
To close the attitude-behaviour-gap and to enhance sustainable consumption, the following selected concrete
measures are recommended
• Raise awareness of the consumers and citizens and offer incentives to strengthen the personal
responsibility of an individual consumer. This should facilitate a behavioural change through
education, campaigns, marketing and promotion. Furthermore (occasional) buyers of organic products
are motivated by additional personal benefits for hedonistic (e.g. taste, sensory attributes) or health
reasons, while regular buyers consume due to ethical, environmental and social benefits (Balderjahn,
2013; Ahaus et al., 2011). The first group of consumers is not affected by ethical obligations. In this
regard, sensory marketing could be an important tool to build awareness and train consumers in
unaccustomed sensory properties of organic food.
10 The other two barriers mentioned in the above discussion – taste/sensory experience and habitual behaviour, which are
of a more psychological nature, are not country specific.
Wiltrud Terlau and Darya Hirsch
• Nudging, the creation of stimuli to make people act in a certain manner. Nudges are by definition a
rational self-obligation of consumers (Thaler and Sunstein, 2009). For example, in Denmark green
footprints were placed, pointing the way to rubbish bins, in order to motivate consumers to change
their behaviour and not to dispose of their waste elsewhere.
• Improve communication of quality attributes of products – (considering environmental protection,
social issues and animal welfare) - and their impact and importance.
• Create more transparency and trust by unified (simplified) and reliable certificates and labels.
• Improve sensory properties of (organic) products.
Individual consumption behaviour is influenced by societal and political framework conditions (Balderjahn,
2013). Companies could play a special role by adopting stricter self-responsibility in the sense of Corporate
Social Responsibility and offer an assortment of sustainable products, with a socially and environmentally
compatible life cycle (supply chain), ranging from raw material to waste disposal and recycling. This process
could be supported by organizational and technological innovations and appropriate communication
strategies. According to the Scientific Advisory Board of the Federal Government (WGBU) 2011 a proactive
state is needed to create the legal framework, implement the political will and promote general awareness.
Possible measures could be minimum standards of sustainability of products and prohibitions, support and
assessment of environmental and social rules, financial incentives structures, research activities, increased
awareness through qualified information, further education and training, communication as well as political
and medial agenda-setting. In this regard a state could serve also as an example in the area of public
procurement, which constitutes a total of 13% of the German GDP (OECD National Accounts Database and
Eurostat, 2011). Mass media, consumer and environmental organizations can be the source and mediator of
information on sustainable consumption as well as (interdisciplinary) research, which stimulates the
development of innovative ideas by their analysis of existing structures and approaches. Also, the creation of a
multi-stakeholder forum of all interested parties, following the Danish example, is a possibility to influence the
Common efforts and a shared responsibility of consumers, business, (interdisciplinary) researchers, mass
media and political decision makers are vital ingredients in this development. Pioneers of change and a
proactive state are the key players (Scientific Advisory Board of the Federal Government (WGBU), 2011). Change
agents need to reach a ‘critical mass’ to increase their impact and a widespread ‘sustainable’ behaviour.
Considering the strong psychological barriers of consumers and the continuing low market share of organic
food, proactive policy measures would be conducive to foster the personal responsibility of the consumers and
offer incentives towards a sustainable production. Also further self-obligations of companies (Corporate Social
Responsibility – CSR) as well as more transparency and simplification of reliable labels and certifications are
needed to foster the process of a sustainable development.
Main parts of this paper are extracted from the chapters ‘Sustainable Consumption’ and ‘The Framework of a
Sustainable Development – A Review and Perspectives’ of the textbook ‘Sustainability Economics’ (Clement,
Kiy and Terlau 2014). This textbook received the UNESCO World-Decade award ’Education for Sustainable
Development‘ in 2014.
Special thanks is extended to Prof. Tino Bech-Larsen, Aarhus University and MAPP Centre for Research on
Customer Relations in the Food Sector, Denmark, for his valuable recommendation to take a closer look at the
Danish example at IGLS-Forum (144th EAAE Seminar) on System Dynamics and Innovation in Food Networks,
And very special thanks to Sigrid McCaskill, IZNE- Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University, Germany, for her care and steady
support as well as valuable discussions on this paper and for her constructive criticism.
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