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Communicating sustainability: student perceptions of a behavior change campaign

D. Matthew Godfrey (Department of Marketing, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA)
Patrick Feng (Department of Communication, Media and Film, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 3 January 2017



This paper aims to investigate the impacts of a science-based environmental communication campaign at a university dining hall. The impacts are assessed in terms of student attitudes toward sustainability, food consumption choices and perceptions and understanding of the campaign and the information it communicated.


A communication campaign was designed to convey the water footprint of food entrées available at a university dining hall. This campaign was tested during a three-week field experiment in which students at the dining hall were exposed to information about the sustainability of their food. To measure behavior and attitude change, sales and production data were collected before, during and after the campaign, and pre- and post-test surveys were administered. To better understand perceptions, the authors conducted in-depth interviews with undergraduate students who frequented the dining hall.


Consumption patterns did not change significantly as a result of the campaign, and students’ attitude scores actually became slightly less positive toward choosing low water footprint foods. Interview data helped explain these results by showing that the ability and desire of students to choose sustainable food were overwhelmed by convenience and time pressures; other food attributes often outweighed sustainability; limited food source information could not verify the benefits of sustainable food; and the science of water footprints was disconnected from students’ subjective concepts of sustainability.


This paper empirically examines how students understand and interpret an environmental change campaign focused on sustainable food. It addresses an important gap in the literature by augmenting experimental and survey results with in-depth interview data, which help explain the often ineffective outcomes of behavior change campaigns. The research was conducted in the novel setting of a university dining hall.



The authors would like to thank the management and staff at Chartwells and the University of Calgary Dining Center for their support and cooperation during this research project. They also thank Dr Victoria Campbell–Arvai for her invaluable comments and guidance during the development and implementation of this project. Finally, the authors thank the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the University of Calgary Students Union Sustainability Fund for the funding of this research project.


Godfrey, D.M. and Feng, P. (2017), "Communicating sustainability: student perceptions of a behavior change campaign", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 2-22.



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