Implementing Change in Student Eating Behaviors: Powered by Plants

Helen Leboe, Alanah Hahn, & Olivia Belin
College of Arts and Letters, Mendoza College of Business
Faculty Advisor
Sam Miller
Class Year


Cover image of capstone, "Implementing Change in Student Eating Behaviors" with image of plant based food.

Our intention for this project was to understand Notre Dame students’ eating behaviors and modify them permanently through a marketing and education campaign based on social psychology. We studied methods other colleges and universities used to try and reduce meat consumption on campus as well as attempts on our own campus and, in an effort to exceed where the other methods fell short, took a community-based social marketing approach to encourage reducing meat consumption in North Dining Hall for the spring semester of 2022. Our direct and digital marketing campaign, titled Powered by Plants, consisted of posters, fieldwork, pledges, stickers, and newsletters. We sent out a total of four newsletters and four check-in surveys over email that asked participating students about their efforts to reduce their meat consumption over the past week. Data analysis of North Dining Hall’s spring data points to an overall decreasing trend in meat consumption not only in the spring but throughout the entire year. It is therefore difficult to tell if eating less meat is just an overall trend at North Dining Hall or if people really were impacted by our Powered By Plants Campaign. While it is unclear whether or not our project made a real difference in levels of meat consumption in the dining hall, it is evident that those who received the newsletters and check-ins were making strong efforts to reduce the amount of meat in their diets. This suggests that our campaign was able to bridge the gap between sustainable thoughts and unsustainable actions within a group of students, an effect we believe could be observed on a larger scale if our campaign were implemented across campus while reducing Notre Dame’s carbon footprint. 


Unsustainable behaviors are shockingly common, despite the fact that three in four people express that issues of climate change are personal to them (1). Cultivating sustainable behavior is a significant challenge, as there is this clear disconnect between thoughts and actions, a gap that must be bridged effectively to successfully enforce sustainable action. So, why do a majority of people continue to act unsustainably?

A comprehensive understanding of the Social Learning Theory can help explain why this inconsistency exists. This theory posits the idea of social norms, which are the implicit social rules governing behavior within a community. There are two major categories to consider: descriptive and injunctive norms. A descriptive norm is the current set of behaviors that people expect, while an injunctive norm is the ideal behaviors people ought to be following (2). In order to foster sustainable behavior, an injunctive norm must be created that people would see as ideal, then a display and encouragement of actions can be used to shift the descriptive norm towards a new set of behaviors.

Recent research suggests that using dynamic norms is effective in promoting sustainable behavior by encouraging this shift, as drawing attention to change in a norm over time can motivate behavior change (3). A recent study examined this effect in regard to meat consumption, such that half of the participants were presented with a dynamic norm and the other half with a static norm. The dynamic norm read:

Recent research has shown that, in the last 5 years, 30% of Americans have now started to make an effort to limit their meat consumption. That means that, in recent years, 3 in 10 people have changed their behavior, and begun to eat less mean than they otherwise would.

The static norm, on the other hand, read:

Recent research has shown that 30% of Americans make an effort to limit their meat consumption. That means that 3 in 10 people eat less meat than they otherwise would.

After reading these statements, participants were asked how interested they were in eating less meat. The results indicated statistically significant differences between the two conditions, suggesting that dynamic norms can indeed promote a shift to more sustainable behavior.

As illustrated in this study, diet is a prime example of a behavior that can be shifted to have a significant environmental impact. It is something that most people are uninspired to change, as there are many descriptive norms in place surrounding it on both the personal and societal levels. Meat is something that often holds a cultural value, whether that be hot dogs and hamburgers at a 4th of July barbecue, turkey at Thanksgiving, or ham over the holidays.

In 2018, the world produced an estimated 340 million tons of meat, while per capita consumption in the United States was 59.1 pounds (4). These are difficult numbers to conceptualize, but important to consider nonetheless, especially because of the direct environmental impacts of meat production. Meat production is the single largest driver of habitat loss, which has cascading effects throughout proceeding trophic levels that have resulted in dramatic reductions in biodiversity (5). Other common consequences of this process include deforestation, freshwater depletion, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from manure, and greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock contributes approximately 5% of the nearly 37 giga-metric tons of carbon dioxide human activities emit each year, which suggests that if meat production continues to occur at this scale, one hundred years of livestock carbon dioxide production would lead to a 0.1°C increase in global warming (6). This may seem insignificant, but in the context of current climate concerns, this change is still problematic.

Because of the environmental effects of meat production, a decrease in its consumption could have significant impacts on these issues of climate change ranging from carbon dioxide emission to habitat loss. Initiating this shift in behavior to an injunctive norm of decreased meat consumption is a challenge, however, one that will require effective promotion and marketing strategies to create permanent behavior change in regard to diet.

End notes 

1. Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Bergquist, P., Ballew, M., Goldberg, M., Gustafson, A., & Wang, X. (2020). Climate Change in the American Mind: April 2020. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
2. Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall.
3. Sparkman, G., & Walton, G. M. (2017). Dynamic norms promote sustainable behavior, even if it is counternormative. Psychological Science, 28(11), 1663–1674.
4. Food Balances (2014-). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2018). Retrieved September 13, 2021, from
5. Machovina, B., Feeley, K. J., & Ripple, W. J. (2015). Biodiversity conservation: The key is reducing meat consumption. Science of The Total Environment, 536, 419–431.
6. Godfray, H. C., Aveyard, P., Garnett, T., Hall, J. W., Key, T. J., Lorimer, J., Pierrehumbert, R. T., Scarborough, P., Springmann, M., & Jebb, S. A. (2018). Meat Consumption, health, and the environment. Science, 361(6399).