Skip to main content

Less Is More…At Least When It Comes to Consumption – Economists want to raise awareness of sustainable consumption

[Translate to Übersetzung Englisch:] Ingo Balderjahn | Foto: Karla Fritze
Photo : [Translate to Übersetzung Englisch:] Karla Fritze
[Translate to Übersetzung Englisch:] Ingo Balderjahn

Every year the latest phone model, the fifth pair of stylish brand sneakers, an expensive bottle of wine every night. Consumption can take many forms today but rarely is it sustainable. Does consumption at least make us happy and satisfied? Researchers at the University of Potsdam want to find out what drives consumers´ behavior and why so few care about acting sustainably. Their current project aims to raise awareness among school children regarding sustainable consumption and the environmental, social and personal benefit of doing so.

Klara stands up, walks over to a clothesline set up in the classroom, and hangs a photo of the smartphone she recently bought. Her classmates do the same – photos of tablets, jackets, game consoles, bikes, jewelry, and more. The students are asked to talk more about the items – where they bought them and why and what they know about where and how the products were made. This scene is the introduction to a lesson titled "Sustainable Consumption in School Education", which was tested at several Brandenburg schools early last school year. The lesson was developed by a research group led by Professor Ingo Balderjahn. The goal is to motivate school children to think about the consequences of their own consumption. "The high level of consumption in the rich countries of the world is one of the central problems for the preservation of the earth and the protection of the climate and resources," says Balderjahn. "Excessive, unsustainable consumption is destroying  the climate and nature. Furthermore, it has the potential to further increase global social injustice."

One of the main causes for the disastrous consequences of over overconsumption is the widely shared view of many economists and governments that economic growth alone guarantees the prosperity western industrialized countries. "Leading economists warn almost daily of the consequences of a economic decline and foresee a diminished quality of life. But this view is far too simple. The global challenges we face cannot be solved with these traditional economic concepts," Balderjahn says. In fact, gross domestic product (GDP) is not an indicator of individual well-being.

Sustainable consumption also requires some frugality

"The crux is to consume only as many renewable resources as Earth can provide every year," says Balderjahn, economist and marketing expert. In order to leave a livable world for future generations, we have to consume so as not to permanently damage nature and also social communities. While science was already dealing with environmentally conscious consumption in the 1980s, the concept of socially sustainable/fair consumption started to be included only at around the turn of the millennium. The idea behind this is to buy things that have verifiably been produced under decent working conditions and at fair wages. Fair trade is a worldwide accepted movement that aims to secure the rights of producers and workers in developing countries and thereby helps to reduce global poverty.

Sustainable consumption includes, not least, a certain view of simplicity and simple living standards, Balderjahn emphasizes. "Getting by with less consumption protects not only our purse but also the environment and the climate. We also know that many people who want to free themselves from the prevailing consumption pressures of consumerist societies and live a more self-sufficient life feel better and perceived their simple living not as a sacrifice."

But why do some people consume sustainably but not others? What motives are behind particular consumption styles? What distinguishes people with a high income, who buy organic yogurt and fair-trade shirts, from the environmentally conscious consumer who grows vegetables in the neighborhood garden and shares his or her car with a neighbor, or from the penny pincher who takes the train every day because it is cheaper? Prof. Balderjahn, his colleagues, and a team around Dr. Barbara Seegebarth from TU Braunschweig set out to identify what consumption means for people today. They study the drivers that motivate sustainable consumption and what hinders it. Following up on this, the researchers have developed a school lesson unit to raise young people’s awareness for sustainable consumption.

For Balderjahn, it is not a contradiction that a marketing expert is addressing this topic. "Anyone who thinks that marketing only serves to make commercial products successful is wrong. Non-Governmental organizations, for example, often do a good job in marketing. "The core of good marketing is the ability to understand the consumers´ behavior in its economic and social backgrounds. Why not use this knowledge to stimulate environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable consumption?

The economists interview people about their buying behavior

The Potsdam researchers first talked with those who are likely to be considered particularly sustainable: people involved with car sharing, those who live frugally or without money, and consumer debt consultants. For three months, the researchers also mingled with people waiting at Potsdam Central Station and asked them about their consumption behavior. They were less interested in what or how much people consumed than in their motives and goals. "For this study, we conducted structured, in-depth psychological interviews," Alexandra Hüttel explains. She conducted a total of 167 interviews together with Florence Ziesemer. "We were interested in finding out which overarching values – such as health, sustainability, freedom, and self-determination – people connect with their buying behavior."

When evaluating the results, the two researchers identified four types of consumers: the "conscientious simplifiers" who value independence and seek not to waste time, space, and resources, whereas the "precautious frugals" want to set money aside, to make provisions for the future. The "spendthrifty belongers" buy in order to gain social recognition but pay attention to their scarce financial resources, while the "hedonic squanderers" enjoy consuming and have the income to do so. It was noticeable that those who consume more frugally do so especially with regard to themselves and for their own benefit. They want to be self-determined, make provisions for the future, save time, space and, of course, money. "Ecological and altruistic-social aspects, however, seem to be of minor importance," the team concluded. Furthermore, it became clear that low consumption primarily aims at avoiding negative consequences such as debt or stress. On the other hand, excessive consumption is mainly connected to people striving for instant happiness. "When people become aware of personal benefits through more sustainable consumption, they change their non-sustainable habits more quickly," says Ziesemer, summarizing the research so far. "Only then can we even enter into a discussion and encourage a change in awareness."

The group developed a teaching unit for secondary school students

The second step on the team’s agenda was to initiate this conversation – and not just anywhere. They wanted to change awareness in the classroom. "At present, these are mainly older, well-educated people who are consuming sustainably. To create long-term, more sustainable buying behavior, you have to start very early: at home and at school," Balderjahn emphasizes. In collaboration with the Berlin-based agency Helliwood media & education, the researchers transformed their research results into a teaching unit for the 8th, 9th, and 10th graders, which was then tested at six schools in Brandenburg and scientifically evaluated – and successfully, Balderjahn proudly emphasizes: "We were able to significantly improve the students’ awareness of sustainable consumption – especially with regard to ecological and social aspects. The young people enjoyed the lessons. "The teachers were just as satisfied with the material and the outcome in the classroom. Most of them wanted to continue using this lesson.

Florence Ziesemer has identified a key reason for this success. "Our teaching material addresses the students’ lives. That is how we got them interested in the topic." Where does this new smartphone come from? Under what working conditions were these jeans sewn? How environmentally friendly is this microfiber sweater actually? You need the right concept to gain access to the world of the students. Only in this way can they be persuaded to think outside the box of consumer promises.

So was the education project successful? Yes, but changes in sustainability consciousness were found primarily in female students. This is a motivation for further research. "This actually shows that the girls already have a better approach to this topic and are more mindful. The boys may need another year or two. We have to follow up and develop material for use in higher grades." The researchers will continue to tailor the teaching material to the school type. While these lessons already work well in high schools, the practical and technical aspects of other types of schools need to be better integrated.

Concepts, strategies and sometimes the political will are missing to bring this teaching concept to foster sustainability consumption consciousness  to schools nationwide. Here, educational policymakers are needed, says Balderjahn. "We are doing everything we can to get the message across." The economist is sure that it is worth it. After all, it is about the greater good. "Of course, we also want to save the world with our project; we would not have initiated it otherwise. We know that every consumer choice can be a contribution."


Prof. Dr. Ingo Balderjahn studied industrial engineering and management at the Technische Universität Berlin. Since 1992, he has been Professor of Business Administration with focus on Marketing at the University of Potsdam. Since 2018 he has been senior professor in Potsdam.

Florence Ziesemer studied Consumer Affairs at the Technical University of Munich. Since 2015, she has been a research assistant in the team of Prof. Balderjahn at the University of Potsdam. 

Alexandra Hüttel studied Business Administration at the University of Potsdam. Since 2015, she has been a research assistant in the team of Prof. Balderjahn at the University of Potsdam.


SPIN – Strategies and Potentials to Initiate and Promote Sustainable Consumption 

(joint research project)

Subproject: “Promoting modest, collaborative, and debt-free consumption styles and consumer-oriented training to promote sustainable consumption competence”

Participating researchers: Prof. Ingo Balderjahn, Dr. Barbara Seegebarth, Dr. Stefanie Sohn, Alexandra Hüttel, Florence Ziesemer
Duration: 2015–2018

Funding: Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) within the Socio-Ecological Research (SÖF), funding code 01UT1429

The teaching material is available at


Text: Matthias Zimmermann
Published Online by: Alina Grünky
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde