Consumption-based environmental indicators, also termed footprints, give a sense of society’s progress towards sustainable consumption. Although they have been published for several decades, little is known about their use and influence in policymaking.

From the wider body of research into the use and influence of sustainability indicators, we see evidence that sustainability indicators contribute to learning and conceptual thinking in policymaking. This paper explores whether this is also the case for footprint indicators, and how any conceptual thinking or learning might come about from their use.

We investigate these questions, along with whether the use of footprint indicators affects wider social and organizational structures to prompt the desired move to sustainable consumption, and how, therefore, the value of indicators as learning instruments might be enhanced.

The analysis draws on activity theory, focusing on expansive learning. It uses data from a series of interviews, focus groups and workshops with Swedish public officials at national, regional and local government levels.

We find that footprint indicators helped officials to learn about the concept of sustainable consumption and push the agenda forward while awaiting clearer political targets and mandates. This was not, however, due to the indicators alone, but rather to the creative practices and agency of committed government officials.

Meanwhile, the use of indicators often takes place through one-way communication activities aimed at changing the behaviour of other actors; there is less evidence of their use to support dialogue among diverse views and interests.

We conclude that if the aim is to change practices toward sustainable consumption throughout society, then political executives must put the necessary institutions and authority in place alongside the indicators, to support public officials tasked with implementation. This must be linked to a deeper political debate about what the policy agenda entails.