Collaboration – a panacea!?

For several years now, more collaboration between different types of stakeholders has been suggested as a contribution to solving various environmental and sustainability problems. Recently, this trend of pointing out that more collaboration would make things better has increased, at least in my perception: In many of the presentations I heard at the 12th IFSA Symposium at Harper Adams University, UK it was suggested that people need to collaborate to solve this and that problem. Just now, I read yet another article arguing that farmers need to collaborate to find common ground for land stewardship and, based on this, discuss future redesign of agri-environmental schemes (Raymond et al. 2016) – aside from countless other publications putting forward similar arguments. To exacerbate this, I myself am deeply involved with collaboration: In my PhD, I myself have used the collaboration argument (Velten et al. 2015) and am working on finding out what makes collaboration for sustainable agriculture successful. Additionally, in the project MULTAGRI, of which I’m part, we seek alternative governance approaches that enable farmer collaboration for more meaningful biodiversity management in agricultural landscapes.

Having said that, I have my doubts about the power of collaboration to solve seemingly all (environmental and sustainability) problems that there are and I’ve become a bit frustrated with this concept. There are (at least) three sides to these doubts and frustrations: First, collaboration does not automatically lead to sustainable outcomes. I recently heard an example of farmers with neighbouring fields who collaborated to get rid of the strips of natural vegetation separating their fields: They agreed on an alternating ownership of these strips so that in one year one farmer would be allowed to plough under the strip and add it to his field, in the next year the other farmer would be allowed to do the same. Thus, in this case collaboration did not foster sustainable land management, which would preserve or even enhance biodiversity, but rather served the self-interests of the farmers. One could say that this happened because only farmers and with that only one type of interests were involved in this collaboration. And indeed, there is evidence that if stakeholders who are inherently interested in the preservation of ecological assets are involved in collaborative decision-making processes, the generated outcomes are of better environmental quality (Brody 2003). However, involving ENGOs, for instance, is not a guarantee for sustainable outcomes because groups representing environmental interests may be co-opted while collaborating with groups dominated by other interests (Kochskämper et al. 2016). Thus, even bringing together different types of stakeholders does not necessarily prevent collaborative decision-making processes from bringing about outcomes that contribute little to overall sustainability.

Second, collaboration is easy to suggest but hard to do. While collaboration certainly has great potential to help identify common ground, complement resources, increase innovation potential, improve social capital etc. it also is very time and energy-intensive. If we all followed the suggestions for more collaboration that have been made, we literally would not be doing anything else than sitting in different groups of people and discussing what we would like to do in our neighbourhood, in our children’s schools, about the forest next to our city, about infrastructure in our city, about water management, about the agriculture and food system in our region, about energy generation in our community etc. Furthermore, finding common ground and agreeing on goals, plans, and measures with people whose mental frames and dominant values are very different from one’s own can be very stressful and sometimes impossible. So, what I am saying here is that collaboration may be one way to find solutions but people’s restricted time and other resources set a limit to it.

Third, making the point for more collaboration seems to be very fashionable at the moment. Thus, if we just argue in our publications that collaboration can help solve the issues we identify and address in our research, this seems to be good enough as a conclusion. Of course, that does not really prevent us from thinking more thoroughly and deeply about other solutions. Yet, having the ‘obvious solution’ of collaboration at hand already, we have little incentive to look into different directions. Maybe it is just my personal impression, but I cannot lose the feeling that we are missing out on something as most of our attention is drawn towards collaboration.

Despite my doubts and frustrations with collaboration, I still think that having different, relevant actors solve a problem together can be very useful to tackle certain environmental and sustainability problems. However, in dealing with the concept and the practice of collaboration we should keep some things in mind in order to address the above-mentioned issues:

First, all collaborative efforts need an explicit normative framework that defines their purpose and overall goals, thus guiding the decisions and actions of the involved actors. Of course, we can hardly prevent the occurrence of merely self-interested or even malevolent collaborations. But at least for the collaborations that are established in order to foster sustainable outcomes, this purpose should be made clear to the involved actors. Thus, there is a chance that the outcome of the example of the collaborating farmers above would have been different if from the outset the explicit goal of this collaboration had been to bring preservation of biodiversity into accordance with agricultural production.

Second, we should generally not be too quick to present collaboration as the wondrous cure to whatever the problem may be. Rather, for each problem we should thoroughly weigh all kinds of (marginal) costs against all types of (marginal) benefits of a collaborative approach as well as all possible risks against all likely gains. And only if we come to the conclusion that collaboration could be worth the effort, we should go for it.

Linked to this is, third, that we should try to look beyond collaboration and think of different, maybe new solutions. At the moment, I do not know what these ‘different, maybe new solutions’ could be. But so it is even the more important that we keep our eyes and minds open for them.


Brody, S.D., 2003. Measuring the Effects of Stakeholder Participation on the Quality of Local Plans Based on the Principles of Collaborative Ecosystem Management. Journal of Planning Education and Research 22 (4), 407–419.

Kochskämper, E., Challies, E., Newig, J., Jager, N.W., 2016. Participation for effective environmental governance? Evidence from Water Framework Directive implementation in Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. Journal of environmental management 181, 737–748.

Raymond, C.M., Reed, M., Bieling, C., Robinson, G.M., Plieninger, T., 2016. Integrating different understandings of landscape stewardship into the design of agri-environmental schemes. Envir. Conserv., 1–9.

Velten, S., Leventon, J., Jager, N.W., Newig, J., 2015. What is sustainable agriculture? – A systematic review. Sustainability 7 (6), 7833–7865.

Flexibility for flexitarians: thoughts about how to govern a reduction in meat consumption

One issue at the heart of the debate around sustainable consumption is the consumption of meat and other animal products. I recently read an article on the feasibility of the reduction of meat consumption by Dagevos and Voordouw (2013), which lead me to consider this issue from a governance perspective.

Dagevos and Voordouw conducted two representative consumer surveys in the Netherlands and their results suggest that only about a quarter of the surveyed population eat meat at their main meal every day. The rest are flexitarians, who do not eat meat at their main meal at least once per week, and a small group (less than 5%) of vegetarians and vegans, who do not eat meat at all. The authors conclude that while policy-makers are more than hesitant to put the issue of meat consumption on the political agenda, many consumers are already “making progress towards more sustainable foodstyles by reducing their meat-consumption frequency rather than by giving up meat completely” (p. 66). They deem it therefore feasible that policy makers “pursue policies that encourage reductions in meat consumption (an eat less meat approach) without endorsing initiatives to drastically cut or even ban it (a no meat approach)” (p. 66).

Reading this article, the varied initiatives to establish a fixed “veggie day” in all different kinds of canteens – be they in schools, universities, administration, or private companies – came to my mind, as well as the polemic and resistance that such initiatives often meet. It is not as if these initiatives tried to turn everybody into a vegetarian right away; they try to establish only one single meat-free day per week. Thus, they actually pursue an ‘eat less meat’ approach, which was deemed feasible by Dagevos and Voordouw. And if such individual initiatives introduced at lower governance levels (the single canteens) are faced with such opposition, imagine the resistance to a similar ‘eat less meat’ policy introduced by higher governance levels. That is why I wondered: If many consumers already adopt a flexitarian eating style on a voluntary basis, why is there so much resistance to having one meat-free day per week?

I doubt the reason is that the results of Dagevos and Voordouw are specific for the Netherlands or that in other European countries the majority of the people still want meat on their plate every single day. The exact numbers may be different in the different countries but I still think that a substantial part of the people in most of the EU countries already do not eat meat every day. In Germany, for instance, meat consumption has dropped by about three per cent (Vorsamer 2014) and about 11% of the German population are vegetarians or vegans (Vegetarierbund Deutschland Januar 2015) – which is more than in the surveyed population of Dagevos and Voordouw.

Maybe the reason rather lies in the prescriptive nature of such initiatives. The definition of a specific veggie day means a limitation of the freedom of choice and this is something many people react sensibly to – and rightly so. Even if there are many people who are willing to abstain from meat on one or several days per week, probably they themselves want to decide when exactly they want to do so. Therefore, even flexitarians might oppose the introduction of a veggie day in their canteen (and on a broader scale as well, if something like that was ever suggested).

So, apparently top-down prescriptions for reductions in meat consumption do not work very well. But what could the alternatives be? One idea, at least for grassroots-like initiatives in canteens, could be a kind of an incentive system: For example, for each meat-free meal, costumers could earn bonus points and after having earned a certain quantity of bonus points they get a bonus, which could be a (meatless) meal for half the price or a free desert or a free drink etc. This approach would meet the same goals as the introduction of a veggie day – raising awareness about the issue of meat consumption and having the substantive outcome of an effective reduction of the consumption of meat. Yet, it would leave consumers the choice of both whether they want to eat meat-free from time to time at all and when they would like to do so. Whether such an incentive system does not only attract freeriding by vegetarians and vegans (the bonus system would have to be designed to be economically feasible despite freeriding vegetarians and vegans) but also lead meat-eaters to actually reduce their meat consumption would be a matter of trying it out in practice.

However, for higher level policies even such a flexible incentive-based approach could still be too hard a measure. Dagevos and Voordouw hold that “public-policy interest in meat reduction, as well as support for policy measures to reduce meat consumption, are currently scarce in European countries—not to mention other parts of the world” (p. 67). This is why rather an incremental strategy starting with “soft policies of engaging and exemplifying” would be needed before “hard policies of enabling (e.g., laws, rules, nudges) and encouraging (e.g., taxes, subsidies)” (p. 67) become feasible. Yet, the implementation of incentive systems as the one proposed above in a few canteens could serve as best-practice examples. This would be in line with the strategy of exemplifying and thus it could help even the path for ambitious higher level policies aiming at the reduction of the consumption of meat.


Dagevos, Hans/Voordouw, Jantine (2013): Sustainability and meat consumption: is reduction realistic? In: Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy, 9. Jg. , Heft 2, S. 60–69.

Vegetarierbund Deutschland (Januar 2015): Anzahl der Vegetarier in Deutschland. Unter: (Stand: 20.10.2015).

Vorsamer, Barbara (10.01.2014): Ein Hoch auf die Flexitarier. Unter: (Stand: 20.10.2015).