Social tipping interventions can promote the diffusion or decay of sustainable consumption norms in the field. Evidence from a quasi-experimental intervention study

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The diffusion of environmentally sustainable consumption patterns is crucial for reaching net carbon neutrality. As a promising policy tool for reaching this goal, scholars have put forward social tipping interventions (SOTIs). “Social tipping” refers to the phenomenon that a small initial change in a parameter of a social system can create abrupt, nonlinear change via self-reinforcing feedback. If this reduces the burden on the environment, it is of potential interest for environmental policy. SOTIs are attempts to create social tipping intentionally. SOTIs produce rapid norm changes in laboratory experiments. However, little is known about the potential of SOTIs in the field. This research reports on a field intervention promoting the consumption of hot beverages in reusable mugs instead of one-way cups, conducted at Swiss university cafeterias (N = 162,523 consumption decisions). Two SOTIs involved an appeal promoting sustainable consumption with regular feedback about the current prevalence of sustainable consumption. Two control treatments involved either the same appeal without feedback or no intervention. This research offers three key findings. First, SOTIs involving regular normative feedback can transform sustainable consumption from a minority behavior into a social norm within weeks. Second, tipping points in real-world environmental dilemmas may exceed the values found in recent laboratory experiments (≥50% vs. ≥25%). Third, SOTIs can also promote the decay of sustainable consumption. By implication, the risk-free use of SOTIs requires deeper insights into the boundary conditions of these dynamics.
Original languageEnglish
Article number3529
Number of pages13
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2 Mar 2021


  • carbon emission
  • carbon fiber
  • carbon footprint
  • consumption behavior
  • experimental study
  • feedback mechanism
  • research work
  • risk perception
  • Intervention
  • Conditional cooperation
  • Tipping point
  • Social norm diffusion
  • Environmentally friendly consumption
  • Social norm change
  • Social tipping
  • Sustainable consumption
  • Field study

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