Consumption is the reason why anything is produced. Consumers are at the end of the value chain and represent the biggest actor group. Their demand influences soil quality and quantity, because soil is the basis of many products.


At the same time, consumers are also citizens who influence democratic decision-making processes and thus exert indirect influence on agricultural soil management. In this context, their preferences and values are essential.

It is possible to divide society into different target groups. An influential model in German-speaking countries is the Sinus Model. It offers an image of the sociocultural diversity describing people’s attitudes and orientations, values, lifestyles, life goals, social backgrounds and positions. The Sinus Milieus refer to two dimensions, social situation and basic normative orientation, and can overlap. There are ten different milieus:


  • Upper classes: Liberal Intellectuals, Performers, Established, Modern Avantgarde
  • Middle classes: Social-Ecologicals, Adaptive Navigators, Modern Mainstream
  • Lower classes: Traditionals, Precarious, Hedonists

The Sinus Model and similar models are helpful for understanding attitudes and actions of people, including in their role as consumers. For instance, in 2016 a related milieu model was used to explain the attitude and engagement of the different social milieus in Germany towards the social-ecological change (BMUB and UBA 2017), showing that attitudes in this context are strongly milieu-specific.

Private consumption accounts for a large share of resource use, including land and thus soils (Poore and Nemecek 2018). Consumption is increasing due to growing world population and changing food consumption patterns (Gomiero 2016). Especially the demand for animal products and other high-quality products is growing. But land resources are limited; the availability per capita is decreasing worldwide. One consequence is higher pressure on soils. Consumers notice environmental problems like soil degradation only from a supply perspective, because they usually are not aware of the links between their consumption and environmental effects (Heath and Chatzidakis 2011).

Governance instruments available to target consumers and the environmental consequences of their consumption include taxes on particularly problematic products (to reflect their social costs), labelling schemes and education. Also, “nudges” are considered increasingly relevant in this context (Reisch et al. 2013).


At the same time, consumers are citizens. Each role implies different channels of influence on agricultural soil management. If consumers are not satisfied with the quality of food products (including the associated environmental externalities), they may either change their individual consumption patterns by shifting to alternative products, or they may voice their dissatisfaction and exert influence on democratic decision-making processes that affect agricultural soil management. Following Hirschman (1970), these two options are called exit and voice (see also Bartkowski and Baum 2019). They can also be combined, e.g. in the form of consumer boycotts.

Human behaviour is complex and influenced by different factors (Gifford and Nilsson 2014). On the one hand, there are personal factors like knowledge and education, personality, values, political views, age and gender. On the other hand, the social context affects consumer in their decisions, too. These social factors are e.g. religion, living in rural or urban regions, social class and cultural variations. Needs are translated into specific demand for products reflecting the individual background of the person (Peattie 2010).


Meanwhile, environmental awareness is increasing, but often does not translate into appropriate behaviour: the so-called awareness–action or attitude–behaviour gap (Gifford and Nilsson 2014). Environmentally friendly products are more expensive and the product price is an important criterion in purchasing decisions (Thøgersen 2005).


When considering the role of consumers as citizens, it is useful to understand their preferences associated with the various public goods provided or affected by agricultural soil management (Bartkowski et al. 2018). However, little reliable evidence on public preferences for soil functions and/or soil-based ecosystem services is currently available (Bartkowski et al. 2020).

In developing countries consumers have a closer connection to farmers than in industrialized countries. While in developing countries agriculture is still a big sector with small farmers, who are consumers and producers at the same time, it plays a minor role in industrialized countries like Western Europe. For instance, in Germany farms are getting larger and more industrialized, while smaller and familiar farms decrease. Due to urbanization, people have lost contact to rural areas and thus to agriculture (BMEL 2018). Normally, retailers intermediate between farmers and consumers. But in recent years, there is an increase in direct relationships through direct marketing, mostly via farm shops, community-based agriculture etc.


Retailers intermediate between consumers and producers. They offer a wide range of different food and non-food products and try to influence consumers in their purchasing decisions. Possibilities to do this are marketing or a special product arrangement in the stores. The latter can be considered a non-public nudge (Thaler and Sunstein 2008).


Consumer-citizens have various ways to exert influence on political processes related to agricultural soil management. While soils as such are usually not the main focus, there are many citizen-driven organizations and movements in Germany that call for a more sustainable agriculture and, particularly in the context of the 2020 reform of the EU Common Agricultural Policy, a more sustainable agricultural policy. Influential non-governmental organizations include NABU (Naturschutzbund Deutschland), Greenpeace as well as the Wir haben es satt! network (see also Jürges 2016).

in progress...


  • Bartkowski, B., Bartke, S., Helming, K., Paul, C., Techen, A.-K., Hansjürgens, B., 2020. Potential of the economic valuation of soil-based ecosystem services to inform sustainable soil management and policy. PeerJ 8: e8749. doi:10.7717/peerj.8749
  • Bartkowski, B., Baum, C.M., 2019. Dealing with rejection: An application of the exit–voice framework to genome-edited food. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology 7. doi:10.3389/fbioe.2019.00057
  • Bartkowski, B., Hansjürgens, B., Möckel, S., Bartke, S., 2018. Institutional Economics of Agricultural Soil Ecosystem Services. Sustainability 10(7): 2447. doi:10.3390/su10072447
  • Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft, 2018. Landwirtschaft verstehen. Fakten und Hintergründe.
  • Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz, Bau und Reaktorsicherheit (BMUB) und Umweltbundesamt (UBA), 2017. Umweltbewusstsein in Deutschland 2016. Ergebnisse einer repräsentativen Bevölkerungsumfrage.
  • Gifford, R., Nilsson, A., 2014. Personal and social factors that influence pro-environmental concern and behaviour: A review. International Journal of Psychology 49(3): 141–157. doi:10.1002/ijob.12034
  • Gomiero, T., 2016. Soil Degradation, Land Scarcity and Food Security: Reviewing a complex challenge. Sustainability 8: 281–322. doi:10.3390/su8030281
  • Heath, M. T. P., Chatzidakis, A., 2011. Blame it on marketing: consumers’ views on unsustainable consumption. International Journal of Consumer Studies 36: 656–667. doi:10.1111/j.1470-6431.2011.01043.x
  • Hirschman, A.O., 1970. Exit, voice, and loyalty: responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Jürges, N., 2016. Wahrnehmungen und Funktionen in der Transformation zur Bioökonomie –  Eine Akteursanalyse im Politikfeld „Boden“. UFZ Discussion Paper 6/2016.
  • Peattie, K., 2010. Green Consumptions: Behaviour and Norms. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 35: 195–228. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-032609-094328
  • Poore, J., Nemecek, T., 2018. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360: 987–992. doi:10.1126/science.aaq0216
  • Reisch, L., Eberle, U., Lorek, S., 2013. Sustainable food consumption: an overview of contemporary issues and policies. Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy 9: 7–25. doi:10.1080/15487733.2013.11908111
  • SINUS Markt- und Sozialforschungs GmbH, 2017. Informationen zu den Sinus-Milieus 2017. Heidelberg/Berlin.
  • Thaler, R. H., Sunstein, C. R., 2008. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. Yale University Press.
  • Thøgersen, J., 2005. How May Consumer Policy Empower Consumers for Sustainable Lifestyle? Journal of Consumer Policy 28: 143–178. doi:10.1007/s10603-005-2982-89