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21 March 2018

Skewing choices to Sustainability

As a foodie, I was very taken with the One Planet Plate project getting major restaurant chains to put one dish with strong sustainability credentials on their menu. However, I've long preached that the litmus test on Sustainability is what you stop doing, rather than what you start doing. Otherwise business as usual remains just that. Accordingly, I would like to see participating restaurants remove the most 'unsustainable' dish on the menu as well to make a real shift in the right direction.


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9 December 2015

Adding friction to unsustainable behaviour

shopping plastic bag

Regular readers will know I'm a bit sceptical about the plastic bag tax – mainly because it's aimed at a minor environmental impact rather than a major one such as home insulation. But what I can't argue with is its effectiveness, with Tesco (the UK's biggest retailer) announcing that plastic bag use had fallen 78% within a month of the tax coming into force.

And I'm quite surprised at the change it has made in my own behaviour. I've endeavoured to take reusable bags to the shop with me for 25 years, but I all too often forget. Strangely enough, the thought of having to pay 5 or 10p for a bag has sharpened my memory and I go much better prepared. The proof is in the pudding – the once huge stash of plastic bags under the sink is dwindling fast.

The difference really hit me yesterday – I had to do an unexpected grocery shop between meetings as old friends announced they were visiting out of the blue. I ended up cursing myself for not having a reusable bag with me always in case of such a situation.

This goes to show the power of adding even small amounts of friction to habitual unsustainable behaviour. It's classic 'nudge'-style behavioural change – remove obstacles to desired behaviour and throw a few in the way of undesired behaviour. Very rapidly people will adjust their behaviour to the path of least resistance.



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16 July 2012

Any colour you like as long as it's green...

On a visit to friends of our who have two small boys, a squabble broke out over colouring pencils.

“Josh, you’ve got loads of pencils, give Jack one” said his Mum sternly

“No!” was the answer.

Mum bristled and was about to go into punishment mode. Jack was on my knee, so I tried a different tack.

“Which pencil can Jack use?”

Josh scanned the pencils in front of him, then held one up and said “This one.”

Our friends dubbed me 'Supernanny' - tongues firmly in cheek - but actually I was just trying out some of my green jujitsu style thinking. People like having a choice – if you give people a single option, they will automatically add an alternative – “no!”. If you give them more options then they tend to pick from those options, rather than considering others. So you simply make sure the options on offer are all environmentally preferable.

And better still you stack the choice towards the greenest option - making that choice the default or most convenient and your least green option the most difficult.


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3 June 2009

Nudge, nudge!

OK, so I'm a 12 months behind the curve, but I've just finished last year's political must-read "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness" by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The central thesis of the book is that we humans like having choices rather than being told what to do, but paradoxically we're not that good at making the best choice for ourselves or society if the issue is complex. Thaler and Sunstein introduce the rather clunkily titled concept of "libertarian paternalism" which translates into plain English as "the choice is yours, but if I were you I'd pick that one", the second part of this being the 'nudge' of the title.

The book is long on examples and arguments and a little short on the 'how to' aspect, but I've gathered that the three main types of 'nudges' are:

1. The default choice is chosen carefully to be the 'best' one eg should we have to opt out of organ donation rather than opt in?

2. The 'best' choice is the easiest, cheapest or most obvious one eg lower car tax for less polluting vehicles.

3. Sufficient information is disclosed to help the chooser make a good choice (would the current MPs expenses scandal have happened if they all had been forced to disclose their expenses claims to the electorate?).

On some levels this may appear manipulative, but the authors make a strong argument that the alternatives are to either ban undesirable behaviour (the infamous 'nanny state'), or to abandon people to make suboptimal choices.

Chapter 12 of the book is entitled "Saving the Planet" and examples of eco-nudges include:

1. Cap-and-trade for industrial carbon emissions (not cutting emissions is going to cost you, but the choice of how to cut them is yours).

2. Information provision through disclosure, labelling or feedback eg the US Toxic Release Inventory, domestic smart meters, and cars that tell you if you're overdoing the accelerator.

3. Voluntary schemes and standards for industry (the authors use the US 'Green Light' label as an example).

I can think of many more cases where these have been, or could be applied. The EU's energy label (below) has been brilliantly effective in transforming the white goods market, raising the market of share of the most efficient A-rated models from 0 to 76% in a decade. It's easy to see why this nudge works - you can buy any washing machine you like, but as you're spending the money you might as well go for an A-rated machine rather than a D. Who wants a D? And, if no-one is buying Ds, why would anyone manufacture one? The market is transformed, but the only rule is that showrooms have to display the certificate.

Kerbside recycling shows how communities can nudge themselves - once a certain proportion of a street puts out their separated waste participation suddenly shoots up. In contrast, when UK councils started trying to reduce residual waste collections from weekly to fortnightly by dictat there was uproar in the media and some councils changed political control due to this issue alone. Maybe if councils had introduced it by saying "you can keep your weekly collections, but you have to opt in for this on an annual basis" the uproar would have been subdued and the laggards would have gradually caught up with the mainstream as those neighbours who went with the default option demonstrated that the system is OK. Actually, it strikes me that local authorities could benefit most from the 'nudge' approach - they tend to bear the brunt of media attacks on any change ("Town Hall Bullies/Loonies" etc) and this could deflect most of that initial ire and transform behaviour more gradually.

Having read Nudge, I'm not surprised it caused such a fuss in the political sphere and there is a huge opportunity to use it to transform environmental behaviour both within industry and consumers alike. Highly recommended reading.

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