BOKU researchers investigated the question of how resource-conserving, sustainable consumption can look like that still meets people's needs?


At BOKU, eight institutes from different scientific fields have come together to form the "BOKU Initiative Consumer Science" (ICS) in order to make research at BOKU in this field more visible and to cooperate more closely. At the symposium "Consumer Science - Opportunities and Challenges" on 24 April, researchers presented the specific principles of consumer science at BOKU and gave insights into their current research work.

In accordance with the central principle of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, sustainability, the approaches of Consumer Science at the eight participating institutes are also characterised by this principle of action. This aims to meet the needs of society through a careful use of resources that preserves the regenerative capacity of ecosystems and is thus intended to make our consumer behaviour sustainable. The participating BOKU institutes with very different research fields presented their specific approaches to consumer science and then developments, opportunities and methods were addressed in a panel discussion. The participants of the BOKU ICS are convinced that the transformation of our societies towards sustainability is only possible with the involvement of all.

The diversity of content was underlined by Klaus Dürrschmid from the Institute of Food Science and head of the BOKU Sensory Laboratory in his opening statement. "Basically, Consumer Science is thematically very colourful". It is about the behaviour and experience of consumers in their everyday life and this includes psychology and emotions, expectations and values, buying, using and disposal behaviour, sensory perceptions as well as rational motives. "Consumer science in the food sector tries to gain valid insights into the behaviour and experience of consumers by increasingly leaving the laboratory and entering real life," says Dürrschmid. But even in the laboratory, numerous methods are available in the food sector: Eye tracking, measurement of pulse rate, skin resistance and pupil dilation in the test subjects, which allow conclusions to be drawn about consumption decisions. Of course, this is linked to the question: "Which people can be persuaded to change their consumption and how?

"Changes in everyday consumption cannot be triggered primarily by appeals to personal responsibility," emphasised Barbara Smetschka, Deputy Director of the Institute of Social Ecology (SEC). Rather, she said, climate-friendly structures are necessary to make it easier to integrate climate-friendly action and consumption into everyday life and to offer an attractive alternative to non-sustainable practices. As an example, Smetschka reported on the "Glass Green" project, in which the Institute of Engineering Biology and Landscaping and SEC are involved from BOKU. The project is about the vertical greening of glass facades and Smetschka's institute surveyed the perception and acceptance of green facades by employees, customers and users. The result: green facades meet with a high level of approval, but a large proportion also share the same concerns, namely fear of nuisance from insects and birds as well as concern about possible pollution. A specific feature of the survey: Viennese people reject ivy as greenery across the board.

At the Institute of Marketing and Innovation, which is headed by Petra Riefler, basic research is conducted on sufficiency, for example on the question of how the best-before date of food could be newly regulated in order to achieve the goal of halving food waste. Riefler: "Austrians want to have best-before dates on food, even if many misunderstand them."

So would a solution be to print the words "Best quality until" or additional instructions for sensory testing on the packaging instead of the best-before date? A study was conducted with 130 test persons as part of a master's thesis. The task was to put together a breakfast, the yoghurt was always 10 days past the best-before date. The result showed that it made no difference in use whether the yoghurt only had the date on it or the date plus instructions for the sensory test.

The Institute of Waste Management and Circularity deals actually with post consumer science, says Gudrun Obersteiner. "Probably when you think of consumer science, you think of market research rather than waste management. But the questions are the same, only with different perspective, namely: who throws away what and why," says the deputy director of the institute. So: Why do we throw away so much pastry? Why do we have old mobile phones, hairdryers and other electrical appliances lying around in our drawers instead of recycling them? Researchers at the institute also deal with motivation research, for example by investigating why second-hand clothing is not yet booming in our country as it is in comparable other countries, or whether optimised packaging can contribute to waste reduction among consumers.

One research focus at the Institute of Transport Studies (IVe) is to understand mobility needs and behaviour in the context of consumers' daily activities and consumption expenditure. "In this way, we want to contribute to better behavioural forecasts and a demand-oriented transport system," explained Reinhard Hössinger. Because, the transport researcher continued, more and more activities can be carried out regardless of location, which leads to an ever stronger interconnection with mobility. A classic example: Answering the first emails on the laptop on the way to work in the train. Hössinger: "But this also requires us researchers to expand our theoretical approaches and develop new models, i.e. the combination of mobility and time use as well as consumer behaviour.

Recreation is an important basic need, as the Corona crisis has shown us. Overcrowded recreation areas, conflicts with landowners, nature conservation or the recreationists themselves were the result. "Comprehensive management of recreational use is therefore indispensable, and this requires basic data. Surveys and censuses of recreation seekers are therefore an important basis for recreation planning and sustainable visitor management," says Arne Arnberger from the Institute of Landscape Development, Recreation and Conservation Planning (ILEN). In order to record demands and develop solution strategies, the ILEN uses social-empirical methods to pursue an inter- and transdisciplinary approach. For example, with the questions: How do we want to design our settlement space? How do we want to shape our energy space? What should the landscape look like in the future? To answer these questions, the researchers conduct surveys, but also work with virtual reality, where they can set up as many wind turbines as they like in a landscape.

But what do the consumer scientists actually want for their research work and how can people be made aware of more sustainable consumer behaviour? The participants discussed this in a concluding panel discussion. The conclusion was that there is no such thing as the consumer and no motive for more sustainable consumption. Against the backdrop of advertising for mostly non-sustainable products, it is much more important to start with personal motives and provide answers to the question "What's in it for me? For this, all stakeholders must be involved, companies as well as political decision-makers.

The discussants wanted the research system to provide time and funding for long-term studies and, last but not least, to give them a higher status, so that they would not, as is often the case at present, be "sidekicks" in projects, but would be seen as an independent scientific area in which excellent research is carried out.

The participating BOKU institutes/centres:

Institute of Food Science

Institute of Marketing & Innovation

Institute of Landscape Development, Recreation and Conservation Planning (ILEN)

Institute of Social Ecology (SEC)

Centre for Global Change & Sustainability

Institute of Transport Studies (IVe)

Institute of Waste Management and Circularity (ABF-BOKU)

Institute of Organic Farming (IFÖL)