Design Principles for Eating Sustainably: Bridging the Gap Between Consumer Intention and Action
Design Principles for Eating Sustainably: Bridging the Gap Between Consumer Intention and Action
Experience suggests that our intentions and actions are not always aligned. This is certainly true when it comes to eating: where food is concerned, making real, lasting change is challenging, even when the desire is there! This article presents valuable principles for service designers seeking to encourage more sustainable eating practices. The principles are derived from Cooler Solutions’ recent ethnographic research study on sustainable eating, Design for Change: Eating Sustainably.
Over the past fifty years, the North American food system has grown from a small network of community-based farms to a highly industrialised government-subsidised operation attached to a few corporate interests. There are more people than ever to feed on the planet and, in wealthy nations, our appetite for convenient, energy-intensive foods goes unchallenged. Needless to say, environmental challenges – including finite oil and potable water resources, climate change and soil degradation – impact upon the way we grow our food. Many people are responding to this situation by choosing to buy organically and locally grown foods, in harmony with seasonal availability. There may be no better time to enable a sustainable food system to take root and thrive. The desire is there, but the commitment to eating more sustainably takes great dedication and consistency: it demands our full engagement. Herein lies the design challenge: how can designers engage consumers to make healthier, more sustainable choices in the way they eat?
Understanding People Fosters Good Design:
Great design connects with people. By tapping into existing culture, design delivers real, meaningful value to the people for whom it is created. Ethnographic research techniques involve studying people in their own environments leading to a deeper understanding of culture and meaning from the perspective of the research participants themselves. In our study of sustainable eating, we sought to explore the relationship that people have with their food and to determine ways to elicit positive change. Our goal is to identify actionable design principles in order to guide service designers, retailers, policy-makers and other interested parties to ultimately increase sustainable food-consumption behaviours among the public.
Cooler Solutions’ interdisciplinary research and design team conducted a multi-faceted study that centred around ethnographic field research and also included local food hub tours (community gardens, markets, restaurants and community centres), a literature review on consumer decision-making processes, as well as case studies of related businesses, campaigns and products. Our research aimed to provide a more holistic understanding of the way we think about and treat our food.
As part of our ethnographic study, we immersed ourselves in the lives of eleven men and women aged 30-59 living in the greater Toronto area. Participants represented a range of cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic classes (from lower to upper-middle class). One participant, an organic farmer, was engaged as a knowledge expert. We visited each participant at home, where we toured their living and garden environments. Semi-structured, open-ended interviews allowed participants to steer the conversation towards topics most meaningful to them. A few participants showed us how they prepare and eat their evening meals.
Findings: Design Principles for Sustainable Eating
Our ethnographic field research uncovered many interesting patterns. These patterns laid the foundation for our understanding of sustainable food culture: the influences, meanings and values that surround food and eating. Incorporating further findings from our case studies and tours, the principles provide useful guidelines for the design of sustainable food products and services. We hope that the following principles prove to be useful in your practice.
1. Seek participation from the whole family, especially children.
Children often have a strong influence on the foods that are consumed within a household, whether through specific food preferences and aversions, or the desire for parents to only serve the ‘healthiest’ and ‘safest’ items.
- Products, services and other offerings should be child-friendly, but should also appeal to the rest of the family.
- Communicating health benefits to parents can stimulate more sustainable behaviours.
- Products and services should encourage positive interactions and quality time between parents and their children, even if only in short bursts.
- Where older children or teens are involved, find an opportunity to educate them on sustainable food approaches and issues. Provide context and explanation for why certain foods and behaviours are healthier or more socially and ecologically responsible.
- Find ways to include children in meal preparation: transform cooking time into ‘quality time’.
2. Honour history, tradition and routine.
Appeal to familiar family norms and trusted habits, so that behavioural change can be more easily accepted and integrated. Scepticism and mistrust are often fostered by a lack of familiarity and understanding.
- Utilise narrative and storytelling to impart a sense of continuity and history. Include familiar stories, conversations and relatable characters.
- Recognise existing traditions and benchmarks, identify their cultural value and emphasise their sustainable significance. For instance, in some cultures, the evening meal is an important daily activity in which the entire family gathers to eat a home-cooked meal. This practice is an important social behaviour that promotes a sense of community surrounding food, the use of ingredients from scratch, and the adoption of cooking skills within the family.
- Communicate ‘newness’ as a natural evolution of the status quo. Approach new products and designs with an evolutionary mindset rather than one of revolutionary re-invention.
- Encourage the sharing of sustainable strategies across cultures. Investigate and disseminate popular resource-saving products and habits between regions.
3. Target consumers at or near transition points in their lives.
People faced with transition points (such as moving out on their own, getting married, pregnancy and the birth of a child, or a sudden change in health, etc.) are most likely to embrace change, especially more profound changes in behaviour, attitude and lifestyle. Targeting services, products and messaging to people in their late teens and early adulthood may prove especially successful.
- Associate sustainable behaviours with typical coming-of-age activities such as renting a first solo apartment or the purchase of a first home, adjusting to a new job, cohabitation, marriage and other such life changes.
4. Make healthy, sustainable choices both accessible and appealing to the majority of people.
As an upper-class status projection, sustainability will alienate some middle- and lower-class consumers. Mass consumers will reject offerings that they deem to be too exclusive, expensive or unachievable. Employ an inclusive approach, where ‘good design’ is targeted and priced to be within reach of the majority of people.
- Sustainable choices should offer both value and lifestyle benefits to the middle class. ‘Good design’ will therefore be genuine, desirable and functional for the consumer.
- Sustainable offerings should not be portrayed as exclusive or as aspirational luxury items reserved for the elite. Products and services should be desirable without appearing unattainable.
- Moderate price premiums are acceptable when the health, taste or ethical value of the product or service is communicated. Consumers will appreciate value offered along the dimensions of health, taste and localism.
5. Tie sustainable food practices to social events and occasions.
In making food-related activities more social, the procurement, preparation and consumption of food become inherently more enjoyable.
- Build a sense of community by engaging individuals to interact with each other in a low-stakes environment.
- Provide physical and digital ‘spaces’ in which people can communicate, collaborate and share food-related content.
- Integrate food preparation into community events: invite people to participate in group cooking sessions.
- Offer food-related programming to singles, and help isolated people build social networks to surround food activities.
6. Provide consumers the opportunity to connect with local food production.
Consumers appear to already have a bias towards local foods: there is a wide appreciation for the fresh taste of locally grown foods, and consumers understand the value of supporting the local economy.
- Communicate and illustrate the pathway from ‘field to table’.
- Help local farmers reach consumers: provide marketing, distribution and business opportunities for them to engage a broader audience.
- Connect food products to a specific region, farm or farmer through narrative and storytelling.
- Offer plans, products and support to new home gardeners.
- Create transparency: product origins, production and distribution can be reported through food labelling, packaging or marketing initiatives.
7. Address consumer concerns about time (and the lack thereof).
Busy people and families may find it difficult to dedicate large chunks of time to shopping, food preparation, consumption and cleanup.
- Provide people the opportunity to ‘time shift’ by batch cooking over the weekend or when they are less busy. This allows for the easy enjoyment of home-cooked meals throughout the week.
- Make sustainable foods more convenient or ‘snackable’. For example, have fresh produce baskets delivered to homes on a weekly basis.
- Divide tasks into short time shifts, allowing people to accomplish their goals without demanding long-reserved parcels of time. As an example, intermediate kitchen compost collectors shift the need to go outside to a backyard composter from a regular post-meal event to a single daily trip.
- Provide simplified recipe alternatives such as ‘healthy dinners in 20 minutes or less’.
8. Reframe the meaning of healthy eating.
Defining healthy eating habits in terms of ‘naturalness’ over nutritional content can help steer consumers away from processed and packaged foods. Compare the nutritional content and benefits of meals prepared from whole foods to those of ‘enriched’ package foods.
- Identify foods and menus that can address peoples’ health concerns, including weight loss, fitness conditioning and other medical concerns.
- Reveal the true nutritional value of whole foods and their importance in a balanced diet.
- Integrate ethnic foods and menus: healthy eating can be exciting too!
- Where income is a constraint, introduce healthy, cost-conscious meal alternatives. Quality food can cost less than a fast-food combo.
9. Emphasise use over purchase to remind consumers of the end goal.
People feel the same pleasure in taking the steps leading to achieving a goal as they do in achieving the goal itself. For example, signing up for a gym membership (behaviour) is the first step to achieving a healthier body (goal), but it does not necessarily ensure commitment.
- Instead of marketing aimed at the purchasing stage, aim for the end product. Emphasise use over purchase. Show the product or service in-use as it would appear at home or, better still, illustrate the end results and implications of using it.
- Offer some form of social recognition for accomplishing the end goal.
- Use prompts and incentives to move people along each step in achieving their goals. A stepped or phased approach can make behaviour change appear less daunting for the consumer.
Finally, recognise that changing behaviour is challenging, especially where our eating habits are concerned.
However, service designers are uniquely positioned to elicit positive changes in habit and routine by creating the context for social engagement. Design can also address consumer barriers, including the cost-value proposition, disconnection from the food system and convenience. In fact, there are many great initiatives operating outside of the conventional market that aim to address these barriers while also engaging people socially and providing meaningful benefits. Food box programs, community gardens, urban markets, community kitchens and other such initiatives not only improve access, but are skill-building as well. After all, these services – like successful service designers themselves – rely on their community to foster real engagement.
Cooler Solutions’ report ‘Design for Change: Eating Sustainably’ was developed as a resource for designers interested in sustainable food issues. The full report, including research summaries and additional design principles can be downloaded here.
[This Article was published in Touchpoint Vol. 4 No. 1]