Personal, Social & Corporate Responsibility in a Common World

Vol. 14, No. 1


Guest Editors' Commentary

Exploring opportunities for eco-sound food habits: Households and researchers in partnership

Responsibility in a common world: My brother's keeper?

Neoliberalism, Microbes, and Peace: A Human Ecological Perspective

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM
, Vol. 14, No. 1.

Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer.

Guest Editors: Margaret M. Bubolz & Linda Nelson

Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright 2002. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society.

Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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Exploring Opportunities for Eco-sound Food Habits: Households and Researchers in Partnership


Helena Shanahan, Annika Carlsson-Kanyama, Marianne Pipping Ekström

Dr. Shanahan is an associate professor in the Department of Home Economics, Göteborg University, Sweden.

Dr. Carlsson-Kanyama is a research leader at the Environmental Strategies Research Group in Stockhom, Sweden.

Dr. Ekström is an associate professor at the Department of Home Economics, Göteborg University, Sweden.


The purpose of this article is to report selected findings and highlight the methodological approach used in a Swedish project dealing with food habits in households and their environmental impacts. The approach is human ecological, longitudinal, and participatory. The households took part in an experiment with the aim of reducing life cycle energy inputs for food consumed. The article covers a case study of one of the participating households, describing food management processes, experiences during the experiment, and outcomes over time. In this household, food habits were changed toward more environmentally friendly ones.


Today there is deep concern over environmental degradation, one of the greatest problems of our time (UNEP, 2001). Consumption patterns must be changed, especially in the richer parts of the world (OECD, 2001). As the demand for ecologically rational behaviour grows, the "green" household is seen as a necessary collaborator. It has been estimated that Swedish households cause almost half of the total environmental degradation in Sweden. Food habits are of particular interest since they represent the type of consumption in everyday life that impacts most on the environment. In converting household consumption into energy use, food may count for up to a third of the total. This figure is based on the energy used in the whole life cycle of foods, from production to preparation. Therefore considerable environmental gains could be achieved through changing food habits.1 The project2 reported in this paper addresses this issue by studying food management in households in terms of environmental impact. During a period of three years we worked in close collaboration with ten households in order to document food-related activities, food consumed, and life cycle energy inputs. Moreover, the households participated in an experiment in which they tried to reduce energy inputs related to their food consumption. The purpose of this paper is to report some selected findings from the project as well as highlight the methodological approach.

Swedish households and environmental behaviour

Bennulf and Gilljam (1991) have studied behaviour related to environmental issues. The actions analysed over the years 1990 to 1996 were purchase of green-labeled foods, separation of household waste, and walking or biking instead of using motor-driven transport. The number of people choosing to walk or bike instead of using private or public motorised transport remained about the same. On the other hand, the number who chose to purchase green-labeled foods and sort household waste had risen sharply. However, it is interesting to note that the number who found environmental degradation the most important problem in the Swedish society declined dramatically during the same period. Other issues mainly related to the economic situation in the country were topping the list instead.

Swedish food consumption patterns are changing, some in the direction of being more environmentally friendly, others not (Carlsson-Kanyama & Lindén, 2001). Compared to four decades ago, Swedes eat more meat, vegetables, fruit, rice, pasta, candy, and soft drinks and less potatoes, milk, flour, and legumes. Consumption of high environmental impact foods increased, for example meat and cheese. Consumption of cereals has also increased: mainly rice, mixed cereals, and pasta. The consumption of coffee, mineral water, and beer decreased while the consumption of juices increased. In 1999, 13% of Swedish households bought organic milk. A food consumption study found that low fat and high fibre labeled foodstuffs often were confused with foods labeled organic. Magnussson et al. found that the most important reason for choosing foods was food taste, and the least important "organically produced.”

Availability of eco-sound foods

The number of organic food products available on the Swedish market has risen considerably as has the number of certified restaurants serving meals from organically produced products. Nevertheless, the total market share of eco-labeled food products was less than 1%. In 2000, 5.3% of the arable land in Sweden was certified according to organic standards. Ten years previously it was only 1%.

Locally produced foods can be purchased at farm markets, still uncommon in Sweden, and in farm shops outside the cities. Acquiring locally produced foods, therefore, usually involves considerable effort compared to normal food shopping and is still marginal among Swedish consumers. However, it is expected that locally produced foods will increase in market share.

Consumers are increasingly requesting information related to eco-sound foods. In a recent survey among Nordic consumers it was found that almost 90% wanted to know from which country the product originated and about half wanted information on ethical issues, environment, and animal welfare. Swedish law stipulates that information on the place of origin of foodstuffs shall be indicated if failure to give this information might mislead the consumer (Swedish National Food Administration, 2001). However, it is only mandatory for fresh and frozen meat as well as fresh and processed fish.

Changing everyday habits

How to make everyday behaviour more environmentally friendly has been on the agenda for nearly half a century and much has been learnt. Both external and internal barriers must be overcome. For example, in relation to organic food products, external structural conditions such as high prices and limited supply must be changed. But also internal barriers such as lack of knowledge and commitment must be overcome. A change can first be expected when the barriers to action are low enough for inexpensive actions that are ready at hand. There has been an optimistic belief in the use of information in the hope of fostering environmentally sound behaviour among the general public. However, it has been found that there is no automatic link between knowing and doing. Norms, values, and feelings have been shown to be a vital part of the picture (Lundgren, 2000).

Models for describing and explaining how environmentally friendly habits are formed have become more varied. The early models of cause and effect, which showed that increased knowledge about a phenomenon leads to positive attitudes, and in turn to readiness to act and finally to changed behaviour, are increasingly challenged. Increased knowledge about how everyday habits impact the environment can lead to positive attitudes toward green habits, which can in turn be manifested in green behaviour. However, awareness or knowledge about environmental degradation does not necessarily lead to positive attitudes, and positive attitudes do not necessarily lead to green behaviour. The importance of studying behaviour in its everyday context has also been stressed. The focus on individual consumers, detached from their everyday living, is still the most frequently used approach in consumer behaviour research, as well as models building on causal relationships.

It has also been shown that carrying out green activities in itself can lead to new knowledge and changed attitudes. Ölander and Thøgersen (1995) call this “experience effect.” They argue that the people involved, for example, in a waste source-separation programme can acquire personal knowledge and replace prejudice and scepticism with knowledge leading to the establishment of new habits. An early model for explaining behavioural change that has been shown to be useful in explaining the change to environmentally friendly behaviour is the theory of cognitive dissonance as developed by Festinger in 1957 (Gardner & Stern, 1996). The essence of this theory is that a person who knows that he or she does not behave the way the society expects sooner or later gives in to get peace of mind.

Feedback, directly tied to people’s own behaviour, has been shown to be more effective than general information and prompts. For example, in the 1970s psychologists started to experiment with methods that offered people regular, usually daily, information about how much energy they were using, instead of telling people to save energy. Electronic monitoring devices have been particularly appreciated. An experiment with written feedback on waste generated, given individually to households in connection with billing and attractively designed, showed to be a contributing factor in reducing waste weights and maintaining weights at low levels.

In the last couple of decades, eco-labeling has become a popular environmental policy instrument in countries all over the world for helping consumers to choose green products. Few schemes have been sufficiently evaluated, but it can be concluded that it takes time and committed effort to build eco-labeling success. Receptiveness depends on consumer environmental concern, the clarity of the label’s profile, the intensity of its promotion, and its presentation in the shops.

The project

The explorative and longitudinal project, Foods and the Environment: A Household Ecological Approach, was started in 1998 to study food management in households related to environmental impact. The project's approach is action and participatory research. Figure 1 describes four evolving phases. The overall aim of the first phase was to describe management processes covering the whole chain of events from shopping, transporting, preparing, serving, cleaning up, and waste handling. In the second phase the environmental impact of the households’ food habits was analysed. The analysis was made in terms of life cycle energy inputs for food consumed. In the third phase feedback was given to the households about the life cycle energy inputs related to food habits. Moreover, a manual for low energy foods habits was developed as a guideline for the households. Based on this information, the households planned and implemented food habits demanding less energy. The effect of the participation in this experiment was evaluated in phase four.

Figure 1:The research process

A human ecological approach

Sontag and Bubolz’s approach and methodology when studying families’ adaptation to a new living situation as part-time farmers inspired the research team. Our objectives were to study the interaction between the households and systems in the environment such as food markets, waste management and transport, and social systems. Our project also included the study of the household’s impact on the natural environment. Equally important was to explore the dynamic of family life related to resource management. We have, however, not included the household's children per se in the study. Thus, our project focuses, as did Sontag and Bubolz’s, on interrelationships and the complexity of resource management processes in households. A human ecological perspective seems particularly appropriate to use. It is holistic, and recognises complexity and interdependence, multidimensionality, and human consciousness. It is in sharp contrast to the positivistic paradigm that narrows and fragments everyday life.

Capturing everyday life

To study everyday life in households requires specific approaches and tools. The design of the project was that of a multiple-case study, with the focus on the household and with food management processes as an embedded unit of analysis. The households selected for the project had very similar characteristics in terms of size, age, and socio-economic status and resided in the same area. Information is needed from a great number of variables when using an ecological approach focusing on the connective relationship between human action and contextual setting. The greater the number of variables studied, the better the chance of obtaining an ecologically valid picture of the everyday reality in the household. A grounding for action research requires systemic thinking in creating the mode that keeps people in touch with the wholeness of our existence in order to broaden action and deepen research (Reason & Bradbury, 2001). It is also of crucial importance to study household activities in their natural, everyday settings (Tuomi-Gröhn & Palojoki). Central to action research is the implementation of experiments in the field rather then in the laboratory (Reason & Bradbury). In line with this tradition practical outcomes are also important (Engberg, 2000). All this was built into the design of our project. Many variables were studied; the households participated actively in the gathering of data in addition to carrying out an experiment in their homes with concrete practical outcomes.

Table 1 summarises the different research methods that were used for different themes in the project. The sources from which information was gathered are also shown.

Table 1 Summary of research methods and themes

Information from
Methods Themes

Assessment Attitudes to food
  Environmental behaviour  
  Resource exchange  

Records Food purchases
  Meals served in the household  
  Meals served outside
  Waste generated  


Inventories Supermarkets    

Life cycle analysis Environmental impact of food  

Checklists were used mainly as assessment instruments. These were filled in individually by the adult household members. This facilitated comparisons between men and women. In order to study resource exchange between the household and socio-economic systems in the environment, the households were asked to draw so called “eco-maps.”

The households kept a number of records. In order to document food eaten in the household, the households kept diaries, based on Ekström and Shanahan, Jonsson, and Renström. These covered time, number of portions, food and drink, storage, and preparation methods. Meals eaten outside the household were also registered. During the same period, the households also weighed their waste, whether or not they had separated it into different types (such as paper, glass, organic household waste). Moreover, receipts were kept in order to record food purchases. Shopping receipts usually indicate if the product is green-labeled. When no receipt was obtained purchases were recorded separately. Time, activities, place, social interaction, and transport were recorded for one week by a time-geographic method. The adult members of the households recorded in small open notebooks when, where, and with whom they carried out activities.

The environmental impacts of food habits were analysed by estimating life cycle energy inputs (Carlsson-Kanyama, 1999). In-depth interviews, having the character of informal talks, were carried out on three occasions with adult members of each household in their home, sometimes with children joining in. Interviews were transcribed in full. We did not ask the households to record income and expenses since we feel these are very sensitive questions to ask. However, knowing their occupations, we were able to roughly estimate their incomes.

The experiment and feedback

Based on the data gathered and discussions with the households, a manual was developed for reducing life cycle energy inputs of food consumed in the households. The manual contained a checklist for helping the households to plan low energy input food,3 examples of meals with high and low inputs based on the households’ own registrations, and a collection of recipes for low energy dishes. The experiment required the households to try to lower energy inputs for meals served at home over one month. They kept a food diary for two weeks covering types of food and place of origin. If eco-labeled, number of portions and preparation methods were recorded. They also listed meals eaten outside the home, weighed their waste, and saved receipts of food purchases.

Immediately after the experiment, an interview was held with each household focusing on their experiences in implementing it. In a questionnaire, the households were asked about the preferred method of feedback: a visit in their home, a joint meeting with the researchers, or a written report. Most preferred a written report, and this was sent to each household after about half a year. The report gave feedback on weights of food consumed and the life cycle energy inputs before and during the experiment. Each report also contained advice to the individual household about how to cut down energy input in their diet. Finally, the households were interviewed after a year, in late 2001, with the purpose of exploring the long terms effects of the experiment.

The Andersson family

In this paper we report some selected findings from our work together with one of the ten households, the Andersson family.4 The reason for choosing this household is to describe a case showing how change can come about. When we first met them, Sven and his wife Britta were in their mid 30s, and their children Frida and Simon were 7 and 4 years old respectively. Besides their jobs, the busy, everyday life of the adults was filled with household chores, children’s activities, union work, and fitness training. Friends and neighbours and their children came and went. The parents both had shift work, being arranged so that one parent stayed at home while the other one worked. Frida spent most of her day in school, Simon in a child-care centre. Sven and Britta each have a university degree, and both work full time. They live in one of the large cities on the west coast of Sweden. In 1998 they lived in a downtown apartment, but in 2000 they had moved to a suburb, about 5 km away, to live in a terrace house with a garden. The family continued to do the main part of their food shopping in the same supermarket they had frequented before moving. The family owns a car but Sven and Britta usually bike to work. After moving they were still able to bike to work, since good biking tracks pass close to the house and conveniently lead to work in the city. The family also owns a summer cottage.

During the first phases of the project Britta and Sven seemed to be interested but ambivalent to carrying out environmentally friendly actions in everyday life. In the first interview they expressed a rather erratic behaviour. In 1998 the Anderssons reported that they always disposed of glass bottles for recycling but seldom or never separated other types of waste. They also often avoided taking the car to work or school. They reported that they often bought green-labeled washing powder. However, when it came to buying green-labeled food products Sven was very suspicious about what they really stand for and how they are controlled. He said he did not believe in ”stamps” (labels), and he thought that prices were too high. Nevertheless they bought six different green products during the two-week period when they initially recorded their food purchases. Britta was more positive toward choosing green-labeled foodstuffs. Both of them expressed interest in developing the habit of buying green products, which they felt was important from a moral viewpoint and in educating their children for the future. However, for the time being they were hesitant. When they were discussing buying eco-labeled foods they seemed to misunderstand each other and there was a miss-match in their communication. They argued about buying eco-labeled coffee. Britta resented that Sven was negative to buying green foods but she was not consistent in her own behaviour.

When it came to the Municipality’s role in recycling waste Sven was again very suspicious and disappointed. He said he was ”paranoid” and related what he had observed when emptying the glass “igloos,” one for coloured and one for non-coloured/white glass.

First they empty the white glass and then the next one is emptying everything (the coloured glass) on top of it. I asked: “Why you do it like that”? “We don’t have possibilities to take care of it anyway. All shit ends up at the same place.” Then my faith is disappearing. I don’t have any faith in that at all.

Britta pointed out that waste recycling did not work in the city but that it did in other places. Sven thought separation of waste into different types and disposal at the recycling station were too time consuming. But because it was important for Britta, he did it most of the time.

When she is there bossing me around, I’ll do it. But when Britta is not at home the rubbish will end up in the same place. Unfortunately that’s the way it is! I would very much like to feel that what I’m doing the others in the system do too, so that it really would be done.

Nevertheless, when the household reported waste weights, they reported five different types. Previously they also used to separate organic waste and put it in the compostor in the yard but had stopped doing so. Also here they had different opinions. Britta thought it worked well, Sven did not. He would like the Municipality also to pick up separated organic waste. During the week they weighed their waste, the total amount was 20 kg. This figure corresponds to findings from other studies of an average of 5.7 kg per week and person for households in apartments.

Living through the experiment

Sven and Britta claimed that during the experiment they had lived just about normally. They found it a positive experience having to raise their awareness about the daily activities related to food habits. On the other hand they found it difficult to follow the advice to plan what to eat and shop in advance. Their strategy had always been “to plan when walking around in the shop.” They found it difficult to find information about where foods had been produced. Sven said:

. . . sometimes it can be packed in one country, but come from another country. . . . I’m thinking about rice and coffee. It might come from wherever. Can be packed in Germany and come from inner Guinea, can’t it? Nevertheless I know that we bought mostly Swedish stuff. That’s what we do generally. [We’re concerned] with meat. . . . What is it called? With cows and that. It contaminates other products, but we try to find Swedish stuff.

(Sven referred here to the mad cow disease.)

Britta had a strong opinion about buying apples from far away:

Yes, it is madness to choose an apple that has been freighted across half of the globe when it is in abundance in the gardens around. I don’t really understand why one should have the opportunity to choose, when it comes down to it.

They had not been able to implement the advice to try to eat more legumes and tubers, mainly because the children did not like these vegetables. But happily Britta admitted: “We have bought organic oat flakes for the first time in our lives—it was okay. Also coffee and milk.”

Table 2 summarises the food weights for 2 weeks during the first registration in 1998 and during the 2 last weeks of the experiment in 2000. It was included in the feedback report sent to the household about half a year after the experiment.

During the experiment, the Andersson household cut down life cycle energy inputs by15%. The biggest changes during the experiment were the decrease in pork meat and the increase in vegetables.

Table 2 Type of food consumed by the Andersson household

Type of food
consumed during 2 weeks
Comments to the changes



More Swedish beef
Much bread from Sweden
Cereals, grains
Green-labelled porridge and oats, German corn-flakes
Eco-coffee during experiment, juice from Denmark, use of water kettle often




Eco-labelled eggs




More fish, plaice and cod from Sweden




Swedish chicken prepared in the oven




Less fruit after, Swedish marmalade and jam




No change




No change

Mixed dishes



Meat & potato cuts and pancakes from Sweden




Less weight after, Danish pork fillet, German sausages

Potatoes, pasta, rice etc.



Eco-labelled pasta, spaghetti from Italy

Sweet bread
More cakes, bun and gingerbread from Sweden
Less sweets




Big change, organic carrots, many Swedish products




Eco-labelled yoghurt, Swedish products

Ca 90 
Ca 90
Butter, margarine and sauces not calculated

One year after

The Andersson family, one year after the experiment, was still very concerned about finding information on the origin of food products and tried to buy locally produced food. They said this had become a routine but still found it difficult, and Sven thought that distribution systems had developed in the wrong direction, making it more difficult for people to live up to their intentions. On the whole, they did not believe that they had established any new habits but lived more or less the way they always had. However, in the course of the interview several changes became evident.

For example, there is now a microwave oven in the household, which they had resisted buying for a long time, having heard about a research project in which mice fed with micro-waved food got cancer. The oven was a gift; it is now frequently used by the children for hot sandwiches. Another obvious change was that the family had again started to separate organic waste. In the housing area they had moved into, they felt there was a well-functioning municipal system for collection and treatment of organic waste. They were nevertheless suspicious, especially Sven, about what happened to the organic waste after collection. They had heard rumours that it was incinerated and not composted. Other changes that had taken place in the household were a reduction in frozen food products, which they believed was a consequence of the experiment. They still, as they had before, tried to avoid tinned food.

In analysing the checklists for frequency of environmentally friendly everyday behaviours administrated in 1998 and 2001, it is clear that a general shift towards higher frequencies had taken place. In 2001 the family always separated their waste into different types. In 1998 they had not done so. In 2001 they often ate organic vegetables and meat and always organic eggs and cereals. In 1998 they chose organic food products only sporadically.

Reaction to feedback

When Britta and Sven were asked about their reaction to the report (with feedback on weights of food they consumed during the two registration periods and energy input), they said they had just browsed through it but did not remember much. The researcher reminded them about the content of the report, and they verified the accuracy. They were pleased and surprised that they had been able to cut their energy use related to food consumed in the household by 15% during the experiment. They were aware of the big cut in pork meat as well as a big increase in vegetables consumed. During the experiment they had also started to eat home-made porridge instead of baked, ready-to-eat cereals—a habit they continued.

During the experiment the Anderssons bought many eco-labeled food products. After a year they still did so and Britta said that they always bought organic coffee. Sven was a bit doubtful but Britta persisted: “But you have sort of accepted. You buy organic coffee yourself now in fact even if you don’t think so.”

Following advice

There were also several pieces of advice in the report on how to cut down life cycle food energy inputs, based on the data gathered from the household. Advice for the Andersson family was to drink tap water instead of bottled juice; eat less cake; increase consumption of fruit from Europe and Sweden; continue having porridge or müslie for breakfast instead of baked cereals; decrease oven cooking of chicken; eat less cheese; and use vegetarian products such as banana, peanut-butter, or vegetables for open sandwiches.

The Anderssons felt that they now ate more fruit and vegetables then they had done during the experiment. They had found that the supply in the shops had increased and was of better quality. The children had also started to eat vegetarian sandwiches. Another reason for their increase in vegetable consumption was that they themselves started to grow vegetables, as commented by Britta:

We even eat tomatoes grown on free land now when we grow it in our own garden—non-sprayed of course. And the children are eating more vegetables now. It goes in periods up and down, but Frida eats a lot, more than you and me almost, on open sandwiches and everything.

Sven nodded approvingly. But when it came to cheese Britta admitted that “they had more than ever.”

The most important barriers, internal as well as external, and opportunities for eco-sound food habits experienced by the Andersson household during the project period are summarised in the figure below.

Figure 2 Barriers and opportunities for eco-sound food habits in the Andersson household






Different opinions
High prices
Low awareness

Difficult to find information
Difficult to plan

Distributions systems
High prices
Insufficient information on transports


Not observed

Higher awareness

Higher awareness
More integrated family opinions
Own garden
Vegetable supply and quality
Waste collection

Mechanisms of change

Upon reflection about the food resource management in the Andersson family’s everyday life during the project implementation period, we conclude that they changed their environmental behaviour to quite an extent. What is remarkable is that they themselves did not think they had become more environmentally friendly but believed they lived more or less the way they always had. However, in the course of the last interview they realised that they had gradually started to act more environmentally friendly and even established some new routines. They had started to buy eco-labeled products to a great extent, had increased their fruit and vegetable consumption, and ate more fish and less meat. They had started to drink tap water instead of bottled water and to separate organic household waste. An established routine by the end of the project was to look for the place of origin of foods.

Interacting with the environment

Several conditions in their living environment had facilitated these changes. The supply of eco-labeled products had increased considerably over the three years (Swedish Consumer Agency, 2000; KRAV, 2002). They also found that the supply and quality of fruit and vegetables had improved. They now lived in an area with a collection system for organic waste, just as Sven requested at the beginning of the project. They had moved to a house of their own where they could grow their own vegetables organically. In other words, some external barriers had been removed (Gardner & Stern 1996). Several trends in the Swedish society also supported green behaviour during these years, although environmental issues were no longer at the top of the agenda (Bennulf, 1996). Such issues are nevertheless constantly present in the societal discourse, but now more taken for granted. During the project implementation period, several events occurred that might have influenced the Anderssons’ actions. The mad cow disease was much talked about in the media at the start of the project, in 1998, to which Sven also referred. Even the Swedish prime minister expressed doubts about eating meat in an interview on national TV (Aktuellt) (July 1, 2001) that created reactions from different groups. In 2001, there was the foot and mouth disease outbreak in Great Britain. Besides, there was an ongoing debate about the conditions under which domestic animals are bred, particularly pigs. All this might have given signals to the Andersson family to decrease their meat consumption.

Feedback on household food management

By participating in the project as a whole, particularly in the experiment, the Anderssons became more conscious about the impact of food habits on the environment and gained knowledge that led to new practices and changes in attitude. There is evidence that they learned “in action” (Reason & Bradbury, 2001; Molander, 2000) and that there was some “experience effect” (Ölander & Thøgersen, 1995). Although not much attention was paid to the feedback report when sent to the household, it had some effect. The report illustrated how “insignificant” choices in their everyday life made a difference. The reduction of life cycle energy input was made concrete to the family. They were satisfied that they had achieved this reduction and gained confidence. It was important that the advice in the report was tailored to the family itself, which could be seen in the behaviours that were enacted. The feedback might have been more effective in a different form than a written report and if distributed soon after the experiment. Perhaps the feedback alternatives the households had to choose between were too limited and should have included immediate and computer aided information.

Changes in internal household interaction

At the start of the project Sven voiced several internal barriers to changing toward greener habits, such as distrust in the waste management system behaviour and in eco-labeling. But, for the sake of peace in the house most of the time, he followed Britta’s wishes. However, toward the end of the project these internal barriers seemed to be slightly lower. By participating in the experiment his attitudes towards green food habits may have become more positive. This observation supports the thesis that attitudes and knowledge might change first after being involved in action (Ölander & Thøgersen, 1995). Sven’s distrust of the municipal waste management system, however, was not without a real cause. Right at the start of glass collection in the city, in the early 1990s, noncoloured and coloured glass were mixed for a short period. Recently (2001) the municipality had problems with large scale composting during short periods, which resulted in incinerating organic waste. To build up confidence among the public after such failures, which often get much publicity in the media, is obviously very difficult.

During the last interview it appeared that the gap in Britta and Sven’s attitudes toward environmental behaviour was smaller. An integration in their relationship regarding these matters had taken place. Sven was buying more green-labeled products and was separating organic waste. It was natural too for him to grow organically in their own garden. The change in his behaviour might be explained by the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957, in Garder & Stern, 1996). The expectation from society and from his wife to act environmentally friendly had, after a phase of hesitation and distrust, made him finally change some of his everyday behaviour toward more environmentally friendly ones. However, Sven still did not have full confidence in societal systems, such as food delivery and waste management systems.

Probably Britta and Sven now also felt they had more time to act in environmentally friendly ways. The children were older; they were more established in their professional roles and presumably had better incomes. They were doing well. They enjoyed family life and their new house and had more abilities and opportunities to work for the environment (Ölander &Thøgersen, 1995). Gradually their commitment and everyday activities had become more proenvironmental.

Other participating households

The other households participating in the study were able to cut life cycle energy inputs in their diet during the experiment. Generally the trends in their food consumption were similar to the pattern in the Andersson family. Among the changes of most importance for lowering energy inputs were less meat, more vegetables and fruits and especially vegetables grown in the open, more fowl, eggs, and fish but also an increased consumption of legumes. These households also frequently bought organic foodstuffs, chose products from Sweden instead of imported ones and used electric kettles for boiling water for coffee and tea as part of their efforts to achieve more energy efficient diets. The overall impression is that the households made substantial efforts to abide by the recommendations given. Thus the findings indicate that, given information and support, the households were able to experiment with new diets for environmental reasons. However, each household chose its own strategies within the family’s living pattern. Over time the pattern of behaviours was more varied. Some households, like the Anderssons, kept up new eco-sound habits, while others fell back into old ones. Some even adopted less eco-sound food habits.

Households and researchers in partnership

Participatory action research methods are a way to bring professionals’ and ordinary people’s practical needs and aspirations closer together for problem identification and program design (Engberg, 2000). The project reported in this paper evolved, based on experiences and data collected and analysed in proceeding phases. The interaction between researchers and households was intensive. In total we visited the households seven times in their homes. It is remarkable that no household dropped out during the 3 years of the project. Four households moved out of the housing area but we were able to carry on the work with them. We developed a good understanding of their needs and problems relevant to their situation and livelihood; this is what Reason and Bradbury (2001) call “living knowledge.” We identified barriers and opportunities for changes towards eco-sound food habits in the households. Learning in “the action” indeed took place, both for researchers and households.

Engberg (2000),, and, among other professionals working with families, have given the name “reflective practitioner” to this approach. It is indeed not certain that the researcher who discovers a problem is the one who can solve it. The participation of the household in our project in designing instruments and in the experiment is an important condition for identifying felt needs and realistic solutions from the households' perspectives (Gardner & Stern, 1996). It is important to bridge gaps between households and researchers in order to develop effective policies and consumer friendly production. There is also a challenge to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and everyday experience. The consequences of everyday habits in terms of life cycle energy inputs over the life cycle were illustrated to the households. The project provided an opportunity for the households to experience mediated scientific knowledge applied to the household’s own everyday food habits.

The longitudinal and action research approach made it possible to follow this emergent, evolutionary, and educational process engaging the Andersson family. The results are specific to this household but yet generative and generalisable to other households. The positive change we unraveled in the Andersson family taught us several things. To educate households to become green is a process that takes time and must be supported by forces both from inside and outside the household. Being involved in an experiment can have effects on everyday habits as well as feedback on resource use. Misconceptions and distrust are deeply rooted, and complex information is difficult to convey to consumers. All this must be considered if we want to count on the collaboration of households for ecologically sustainable development.

The human ecological approach helped us to focus on the interaction between household members, as well as their interconnectiveness with their living environment. These dynamic processes would not have been possible to capture by just studying individuals or individuals apart from their household environment. The results reported in this paper add to the understanding of the functioning of the household ecosystem, especially how change toward more ecologically sustainable food habits can occur. The findings show, indeed, that there is a personal, social, and corporate responsibility for triggering such change. The personal is to implement changes toward more environmentally friendly habits in everyday life. The social is to provide transparent and user-friendly systems supporting households in their green efforts. The corporate is to change toward more proenvironmental production and to provide relevant information about products and services in order to help households make eco-sound decisions.


(1) Such changes include less meat, cheese and farmed fish and fewer vegetables grown in greenhouses but more vegetables of the season, more locally produced food and more fresh foods but less food with low nutritional value such as soft drinks and snacks (Carlsson-Kanyama 1999; Kramer 2000; Sundquist & Jansson.; 2000; Jungbluth & Tietje (2000). An increase of organically produced foods would also contribute to less environmental impact.

(2) The project is a joint venture between the Department of Home Economics, Göteborg University and Environmental Strategies Research Group, Stockholm.

(3) Examples of what to do were: eat more fruit, vegetables, tubers, and legumes; use a water kettle for heating water and a microwave oven for preparing food of 2-3 portions; separate waste; and plan what to eat and shop in advance. Examples of what to avoid were: deep frozen and tinned food and products that have been grown in green houses and/or which had been transported long distances. Also on the list were: cut down consumption of rice, meat, and cheese; and avoid oven cooking for a small number of portions.

(4) All the names are fictitious and some features of the household have been changed.


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