May 9th, 2010

Higher Education for Sustainable Consumption: Concept and Results of a Transdisciplinary Project Course

By Daniel Fischer and Marco Rieckmann


We introduce the notion of sustainable consumption as a transdisciplinary challenge to higher education through the presentation of a concept seminar designed as a response to this challenge. The seminar aimed to equip students with the skills and competencies needed to design informal learning settings in close collaboration with campus service-providers (e.g. coffee shops, canteen, campus vegetable stall, bike repair shop) with the goal of incorporating sustainability principles into students’ experience while obtaining or consuming those services.  The student projects were informed and guided by the didactic first phase of the seminar where transdisciplinary collaboration for sustainable development, informal learning theories, consumer competence models and project management were covered. Results of the project course comprise (a) self-reported competence increase in designing and providing settings for sustainable learning on side of the participating students, (b) highly visible imprints of sustainable consumption on the entire campus and (c) an increased awareness of the principles and objectives of sustainable consumption for the participating service-provider partners.

Sustainable Consumption: A Transdisciplinary Challenge to Higher Education

In 1992, Agenda 21 was passed in Rio de Janeiro, emphasizing the need to change unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. In chapter 36 of Agenda 21, formal and non-formal education are regarded as “indispensable to changing people’s attitudes” and “critical for achieving environmental and ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behavior consistent with sustainable development” (UNCED, 1993: 36.3). This stance has been reaffirmed by the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and the consequent launch of the UN world decade on Education for Sustainable Development to span from 2005-2014. The decade sets out to “to integrate the principles, values, and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning” (UNESCO, 2005: 6) and explicitly aims to develop “knowledgeable consumers who purchase goods with low lifecycle impacts and who use their purchasing power to support corporate social and environmental responsibility and sustainable business practices” (ibid.: 29). Education for sustainable consumption has become a central theme in efforts related to education for sustainable development and the promotion of sustainable production and consumption.  (Within the UN 10-year framework on sustainable production and consumption in the so-called Marrakech process a task force led by Italy on Education for Sustainable Consumption has been established.)

Educational organizations have an effect on consumption in two ways. On one hand, they can contribute with educational offers related to consumption that make us reflect and render our own consumption patterns more conscious. On the other, educational organizations by themselves are places where consumption takes place, for example at the university canteen or at cafeterias on campus. Most human learning is informal learning (Conlon, 2004) implying that a great deal of consumption-related learning in educational organizations happens along the way.

BINK is a German acronym for educational institutions and sustainable consumption; the project is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (2008 – 2011). For further details, please consult the BINK website under

Against this background, the research and development project BINK explores ways to transform universities into places that promote a more sustainable lifestyle among young adults by systematically aligning formal and informal learning processes. Using a transdisciplinary process, a team of interdisciplinary researchers and educational practitioners is developing a set of interventions and an accompanying empirical design to initiate, stabilize and evaluate change processes towards a “culture of sustainable consumption” in the participating educational organizations. The Leuphana University of Lüneburg is one of the six partner organizations in the project and the course case study presented here uses the BINK set of interventions.

The project course was conceptualized to explore how consumption settings in the university context can be shaped and designed in order to stimulate informal learning processes on sustainable consumption. Such engagement with the “real world” calls for close collaboration between students, research supervisors and practitioners from the non-academic world. Not surprisingly, UNESCO’s 1998 working paper on putting ESD into practice was subtitled “a transdisciplinary vision for concerted action” (UNESCO, 1998).

Transdisciplinarity can be distinguished from traditional forms of (action) research through a distinct perspective on the relation between research and praxis. In the concept of transdisciplinarity, any form of research demands “the inclusion of non-scientific actors into the processes of knowledge generation and implementation” (Luks & Siebenhüner, 2007: 419). Although transdisciplinarity research marks a “fuzzy and contested field” (Hirsch Hadorn et al., 2008: 27), four distinct concerns of transdisciplinarity can be distinguished:

“First the focus on life-world problems; second the transcending and integrating of disciplinary paradigms; third participatory research; and fourth the search for unity of knowledge beyond disciplines.” (ibid.: 29)

Figure One: Model for transdisciplinary research processes (according to Bergmann & Jahn, 2008: 98)

The process of transdisciplinary research (Figure 1) can be regarded as a cyclical and circular movement: the central initial stage is the formation of a common problem and the formation of a team. In the course of joint action, new knowledge is produced that relates to the practical problem of the life-world and to scientific research questions. Importantly, both strands impact their respective discourses and might again lead to the formation of new problems. Thus, a transdisciplinary approach is needed not just for operational and pragmatic, but for epistemological reasons as well. A strategic intervention in consumption settings requires addressing life-world problems, interests and references on the one hand as well as interdisciplinary scientific problems, interests and references on the other.

Project Course Design

The overarching objective of the project course was to enable students to plan and design informal learning settings that promote the acquisition of sustainable consumer competence. During the seminar, students conducted small research and development projects in close collaboration with partners in practice. The core feature of the projects involved developing, field testing and evaluating interventions that trigger informal learning processes leading to more sustainable consumption among the recipients.

Table One: Characteristics of the project seminar

Name of the course “Education for Sustainable Consumption”
Teachers Daniel Fischer, Marco Rieckmann, Institute for Environmental and Sustainability Communication
Study program / area Leuphana Bachelor, Major Environmental Sciences, 3rd semester
Period Winter term 2009/2010
Total number of students 32
Student home countries/sex Ecuador (3), Germany (29) / female (18), male (14)
Course language German

The seminar inputs were thoroughly designed and the seminar chronology carefully tuned in advance. Considerable effort was invested in acquiring financial resources and partners on campus for the students’ group work in the project phase of the seminar. For the results to become visible on campus, the selection criterion for cooperating partners was that the students be able to conduct their projects on campus together with providers of consumption-related offers (partners in practice).. This ensured that the divergent goals of the students’ projects were situated in and connected by the common framework of the university’s consumption premises. Special emphasis was given to the fields of “nutrition” and “mobility” that are also the main foci of intervention in the BINK project. These comprehensive preparations allowed third semester students to accomplish the complex and ambitious tasks within the given time frame.

Figure Two: Structure and chronology of the project course (PP = Partners in Practice, P1-7 = Student Projects, Organizing Responsibility: green = lecturers / yellow = students)

The architecture of the seminar was structured in the three phases of input, project work and presentation and reflection (figure 2). In the first session, the seminar concept was presented and discussed with the students. Special emphasis was given to the clarification of the principles of transdisciplinary collaboration (figure 1) and  project groups were formed. The project workshop in session five served as a first milestone in the project course. Here, the student groups presented their project ideas to the other groups and discussed these in class together with their partner in practice who had been invited to join this session by the lecturers. The inputs of the second, third and fourth session were designed as offers to support the genesis and further advancement of project ideas in the groups. While the input in session two provided an introductory orientation in the complex seminar field of sustainable consumption (Fischer, 2010a), the input in the third session focused on consumer competence and introduced a potential educational target figure for the construction of learning settings for sustainable consumption (Barth & Fischer, 2010). After the questions of “what” and “whereto” had been addressed, the input in the fourth session explored the question of “how” in the sense of potential ways to accomplish learning objectives. In this session, concepts of different learning theories and a typology of intervention techniques from environmental psychology were discussed. These interdisciplinary inputs supplied the students with instruments and orientational knowledge to further develop their project idea.


Seven students groups conducted separate projects to design informal learning settings for sustainable consumption. The projects are briefly portrayed below.

Campus Vegetable Stall

This project group cooperated with a provider of regional, certified organic vegetables, who has her stall on campus every Tuesday. The project targeted two groups. On the one hand, the project sought to equip regular customers of the stall with orientational knowledge (Abel, 2008: 13) regarding regional and seasonal nutrition and to increase their readiness to experiment with and try out new recipes and alimentary practices.

Illustration 1: Food samples and personal communication

On the other hand, it was purposed to raise non-customers’ awareness of regional, seasonal and organic food offers on campus and to remedy existing concerns or reservations about sustainable nutrition.

Illustration 2: Sustainable nutrition promotion day

The student group designed measures of intervention and conducted a special promotion day at the vegetable stall. To stimulate non-personally transmitted knowledge acquisition, a seasonal calendar and product-related background information were provided. In addition to this, experience-driven techniques were applied. Samples of regional and seasonal food as well as give-aways (vegetables and fruit in a paper bag with imprinted slogans and catchy facts) were prepared and offered at the stall to raise both customers’ and non-customers’ awareness of sustainable alternatives to their usual dietary practices. In personal communication situations, individual barriers, as well as potential incentives, to following sustainable nutrition and food consumption were addressed.

University Campus Canteen

This project group cooperated with the caterer of the main canteen on campus. The project set out to tackle a communication problem that was mentioned by the catering staff based on the results of a survey in which customers of the canteen had been asked for their food preferences (Adomßent et al., 2007).

Illustration 3: Prompt at the self-service point issuing paper tissues and cups (translation: “3, 2, 1 – mine! Only take as much as you really need!”

The communication problem lay in the fact that available options for sustainable consumption in the canteen are mostly unknown to the customers. The project also sought to address non-sustainable consumption practices observed in the main dining room, including low consumption of organic and vegetarian dishes and over-use of paper tissues and paper coffee cups. The main goals of this project, then, were to point out options for more sustainable consumption practices at the canteen and to communicate incentives for respective changes in other life spheres beyond the campus life (i.e. to trigger “spill-over”-effects).

Illustration 4: Promotion Leaflet for the “Veggie-Day”

As part of their intervention, the student group conducted a special promotion day for vegetarian food (“Veggie-Day”) at the canteen. Posters, information leaflets and visual presentations were prepared to communicate options for more sustainable and less meat-based consumption at the canteen. To help reduce the high level of consumption of paper tissues and cups, short cues (“prompts”) were installed at the respective self-service points (“3, 2, 1, – mine! Only take as much as you really need”, illustration 4). A short survey combined with a lottery was conducted at the exit of the canteen to evaluate the perception and acceptance of the campaign among canteen users.

Bike Self-Repair Workshop KonRad

Illustration 5: Mobilizing cyclist

KonRad is a student-run bike self-repair workshop on campus. The KonRad-group conducted the only project in the field of mobility. The project idea emerged from the group members’ diagnosis that cars are driven onto campus with no awareness of alternatives. The project pursued two goals: first, it sought to raise car-users’ awareness and knowledge of alternative mobility options and the advantages of more sustainable forms of moving to, on and from the campus site; second, to strengthen existing sustainable mobility practices, the project also targeted bike-riders on campus.

Illustration 6: “Service rather than sell” – Self-Repair Bike Workshop

For the first target group the project group attached small information leaflets (in the form of bookmarks) onto the door handles of parked cars on campus. The leaflets contained information on carbon dioxide reduction and monetary savings that would result from switching to a bike. In a second intervention, leaflets were placed on the handlebars of parked bikes on campus, promoting and inviting to a free workshop day at the self-service bike-workshop on campus. The bike-owners were called on to bring their bikes and learn how to repair and service them.

Food-Coop “KoKo”

The KoKo-group cooperated with the student-run food cooperative “Corn Connection” (KoKo) on campus.

Illustration 7: The new KoKo logo

Two goals were pursued in the project. First of all, the project set out to inform students about the format of a food cooperative as an option for sustainable consumption. The second goal sought to raise the food cooperative members’ awareness in order to enable them to consider sustainability as a criterion in their purchasing decisions. For the first target group the project conducted a survey to examine the members’ knowledge of different sustainability issues. Based on the results, posters were designed and placed in the salesroom of the cooperative. In order to improve the external communications, a friendlier, more inviting and recognizable logo was designed.

Illustration 8: The Koko Blog

The visibility and accessibility of KoKo was increased by means of a public website ( that allowed for interaction with potential new users.

Nutrition-Coach “FoodYa”

The FoodYa-group targeted the student-run web-portal “foodya” ( in their project. The web-portal includes a “personal nutrition coach” directed at the student age-group.

Illustration 9: Provocative CityCard “I only like German…” promoting regional and seasonal carrots

It provides nutrition-related information and analyzes the users’ eating and activity-related behaviors from a health promotion perspective. More than 300 users are registered.

The project aimed to incorporate the theme of sustainable nutrition into the web-portal. In order to trigger informal learning processes, short informational texts (e.g. on sustainability labels) and catchy facts (e.g. “Did you already know…”-prompts) were placed on the homepage of the web-portal. In addition to this, the information on food products, vegetables and fruits in the website’s database were supplemented by information on their seasonal and regional availability.

“Offline” target groups were approached with posters and postcards (gratis “city cards”) that conveyed provocative and startling messages.

Campus Café 9

The Cafeteria-group pursued the goal of communicating and promoting sustainable consumption practices at the campus cafeteria “9”. This student group developed a label for sustainable products that was attached to shelves where seasonal, resource-saving, certified organic and fair trade products were offered for sale in the cafeteria. The label was launched with an awareness week in which students used demonstration and experience-based techniques (e.g. free food samples) while they informed customers on the label in personal conversations.

Illustration 11: Sustainable Product Label.

To raise consumers’ awareness of (un)sustainable consumption practices, a sign was placed in front of the paper cup stack which served to keep patrons from automatically grabbing a disposable coffee cup, thereby disrupting routine unsustainable actions.

Illustration 12 : Prompt in front of the one-way paper.

The sign provided information on potential savings of scarce resources that can be achieved by simply choosing reusable glass cups. During the awareness week, a reusable thermo-cup was offered for sale at a discount price.

Swap-Shop “The Onion”

This student group cooperated with the student-run cafeteria on a smaller campus of the Leuphana University of Lüneburg.

Illustration 13: Students rebuilding the shop

The room opposite to the cafeteria premises was formerly used as an office by the student council. Since the council had moved to the main campus, the room was abandoned. The project group received approval to use the room as a space for swapping and sharing consumer products, exempt from any charges, thereby dematerializing consumption

Illustration 14: The grand opening of the swap-sho

At the end of the project phase of the seminar, the first swap shop in Lüneburg opened its doors. With great personal commitment and dedication the project group refurbished the room and equipped it with shelves and clothes racks. The grand opening party was advertized on campus and students were invited to bring things from home that they did not need anymore, but that still functioned perfectly. The swap shop is connected to the cafeteria and is open during the cafeteria’s opening hours.

Evaluation and Outlook

A written evaluation was conducted as part of the regular course evaluation at the end of the term. Special attention was given to the self-reported acquisition of competencies among the participating students (figure 3). The results of the evaluation indicate that the seminar was successful in applying theoretical knowledge in practice and in equipping students with the skills and experiences needed to design and implement informal learning settings for sustainable consumption. The high score in the second reported item suggests that the extended periods of self-dependent project work have given rise to a high level of commitment and ownership among the students. The fact that students from the seminar joined the local steering committee of the project BINK at the Leuphana University strengthens this suggestion. The high score could also point to the transdisciplinary character of the work that involved considerable social and communicative efforts and thus led to a clearer understanding of the issue among the students (cf. Bergmann & Jahn, 2008).

The feedback from the participating partners points to an increase in the providers’ awareness of the principles and objectives of sustainable consumption. It is hoped that this growing awareness and the highly visible imprints of sustainable consumption that have been generated on the entire campus will ensure that the seminar has a prolonged and sustainable impact of the seminar on the university’s “culture of consumption”.


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