Sanitation and Wastewater

Publication // Becoming FEW Conscious: A Conceptual Typology of Household Behavior Change Interventions Targeting the Food-Energy-Water (FEW) Nexus

By Berman, H., Shwom, R., & Cuite, C. (2019). This paper proposes a conceptual typology that synthesises interdisciplinary analytic traditions to classify behavioural interventions targeting the household FEW nexus. The typology summarises behavioural interventions as active, passive, or structural, and household-specific or non-specific, illustrating six distinct categories.

The Food-Energy-Water (FEW) Nexus presents an opportunity to rethink predominant approaches to household behavior change science. A rapidly expanding area of study in sustainability sciences, the FEW Nexus challenges previous understandings of household resource consumption. Creating questions about feedback systems, tradeoffs, and actual environmental impacts, the FEW Nexus adds further complexity to our understanding of human-environment relationships. The human necessities of housing, sustenance, and transportation require growing supplies of FEW resources. Consuming these resources at our current rate results in air, land, water, and greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts. These routine activities are also deeply personal, cultural, and create meaning in our lives. Despite increased attention to the interconnected nature of food, energy, and water consumption, it remains unclear how many household consumption intervention studies utilize the FEW Nexus framework.

This paper seeks to link emerging FEW Nexus research with existing literature examining household consumption and pro-environmental behaviors. To guide this developing field, we proposed a conceptual typology that synthesizes interdisciplinary analytic traditions to classify behavioral interventions targeting the household food, energy, and water (FEW) nexus. The development of a typology enables research on household consumption in the FEW Nexus to accumulate findings across disciplines.This paper advances past typologies and reviews by emphasizing the significance of the food, energy, and water nexus to household sustainability. Our objective is to look across interventions in the FEW resource domains and identify commonalities between intervention strategies and underlying frameworks as we move forward to address household resource consumption in an interconnected way. Specifically, we asked: What intervention studies exist within the literature that study food, energy, and water resources, both individually and through a nexus approach? What common strategies exist for targeting food, energy, and water conservation in household interventions? What tools might facilitate the development of more comprehensive household FEW nexus studies? We argued that more careful attention to FEW interconnections will advance household consumption research initiatives. Additionally, our understanding moves past individual consumer decision-making to consider structural constraints to behavior change, while drawing attention to how researchers are incorporating these barriers into existing intervention science.

Key messages

To further advance the science of household resource consumption as a climate change mitigation strategy, interdisciplinary research that highlights the FEW Nexus provides a promising approach. In this paper, we linked emerging FEW Nexus research with household consumption and pro-environmental behavior literature through an innovative typology that accounts for both behavioral and structural intervention research. In addition to the generation of a typology and key findings outlined in the discussion, our review highlighted the lack of studies that 1) address multiple FEW domains and 2) report effect sizes that allow comparison of intervention impacts across studies. Across the FEW domains, we saw different types of interventions used and varying results.

  • More food studies addressed structural constraints than another resource category. Here, information provision was more effective when households already had structural tools to collect and sort food waste. Household food studies more often targeted food waste than food purchasing and other consumer behaviors.
  • Energy studies showed that feedback was generally effective for reducing household energy use, but the way it was framed has implications for success. Digital home energy monitors were popular and effective, but the feedback they provided must be purposeful and persistent. Within these studies, the energy was typically observed as electricity use and did not consider embedded energy in another resource use.
  • Within water studies, action interventions were successful but were only present in two studies. Feedback was effective, but persistence varied across studies (many did not include follow-ups). Researchers considered the effects of structural barriers when interventions were not effective. We also noted that geography was framed as important for context (e.g., drought frequency).
  • Multi-resource studies used intervention “packages” that used multiple strategies and targeted multiple behaviors. These comprehensive intervention packages seem to be effective and warrant further study.

Eventually, the focus must shift to policy: how can effective interventions be successfully implemented and imitated in policy contexts? In the spirit of interdisciplinarity, FEW nexus researchers must connect with broader policy audiences to engage in coalition-building and the development of science-backed policies on local and national levels. Coordinating complex and holistic interventions outside of research settings will take coordination between and buy-in from a wide variety of stakeholders, including local governments, utility companies, and consumers.


September 2019


© 2019 by the authors.


Berman, H., Shwom, R., & Cuite, C. (2019). Becoming FEW conscious: A conceptual typology of household behavior change interventions targeting the food-energy-water (FEW) nexus.


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