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Sustainability by Default: Making Doing Good the Easiest Choice

One of the most vexing challenges in the sustainability movement is how to get people to do the right thing. Research by organizations such as GlobeScan suggest that the majority of consumers care about sustainability and want to do the right thing, yet the gap between desire and daily behavior remains a major obstacle to progress.

I believe that we have been focused on getting people to do the right thing, when a more fruitful path would be to make doing the right thing the default choice.

One of the simplest and most robust findings from behavioral economics is that when people are faced with a choice, they tend to stick with the default option. For example, most countries have an option for people to donate their organs upon their death. In America, the default choice is to not donate organs, meaning they must specifically check a box on a form (an “opt-in” system). As a result, the consent rate is only about 28 percent. In contrast, Belgium’s default option is to donate organs (an “opt-out” system), in which about 98 percent of the population consent to donation. So in Belgium, for example, you have to choose not to help others when you die, whereas in America you have to choose to do so.

Years ago, Robert Fritz came up with the simple idea of the path of least resistance.The idea is simple, yet profound: If you want people to change, make the change easier to do than not making the change. Research in technology shows that the vast majority of people never change the default options on their devices, showing again how much we tend to go with the default. A simple example: Fill your refrigerator with food that is good for you. If you want something that is bad for you, you will have to make a special trip to the grocery store, which is a lot harder than just eating the good stuff.

Let me give you a simple example of making sustainability the easiest choice. Watching people use all those paper towels at public restrooms when electric hand dryers are an option, so the new terminal at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) caught my attention: The hand dryers are right next to the sink, clearly visible, while the towels are on the other side of the wall. Even a few minutes in the men’s room showed me that the vast majority of people had done the sustainable thing because it was the easier choice. This is the polar opposite of what happens when the two choices sit side by side. At SFO, you have to work to be bad.

Choosing bad is harder than choosing good

One of my theories behind this idea of ‘good by default’ is that it’s harder for most people to choose to do bad than it is for them to choose to do good. For example, when you check into a hotel there is usually a sign that says something like “the environment is going to hell, washing all these towels is bad for the planet, so choose to do good by putting your towels this way.” Bottom line, people have to choose to do good. My hotel clients tell me that a very small percentage choose to do so.

Imagine if you arrived and found this sign instead: “The environment is going to hell, all this washing is bad for the planet, so we will only change your towels if you do this or that.” Suddenly, not only is the default option to do the right thing, but I have to actually choose to do bad. Right now, people mostly have to choose to do good, but the game changes when both the path of least resistance is the right thing and I have to make a conscious choice to do something I know is unsustainable.

Examples of making good the default

The list of ways companies could make good the default is endless, and I would love to hear many more examples from you, but let’s start with some simple ones:

  • Restaurants only give you a plastic straw if you ask for one, communicated through a simple sign at the table saying how much plastic waste is created by straws

  • Airlines let you drink directly from the can, unless you ask for a plastic cup

  • Businesses have set their printers to copy double-sided as the default

  • Hotels don’t change your sheets and towels, unless you specifically request it

  • Boarding passes automatically come to your smartphone unless you ask for one to be printed

  • Restaurants don’t provide drinking water unless you ask for it (already done in many areas of drought, but let’s make it the norm)Electronic billing is the norm unless you request a paper bill

  • Sustainable products are featured at the front of the store or in the section of the store with the best real estate

  • Electronics are set to battery-saver mode and go back to that mode after every restart, unless you switch it off

  • Speed control on cars is linked to the speed limit on the GPS, unless you choose otherwise

  • Collecting recyclables every week but garbage only twice per month (this is done in my city of Vancouver, Canada and trust me, it changes behavior)

Good by Default — good for business and the world

The great news about switching from “choose good” to “good by default” is that it’s very good for business in several ways. First, this is something companies already do but mostly for their own profit and convenience: think electronic calling options that make using the electronic system easier than getting to a human being. Customers mostly resent this practice because it mostly benefits the business. Sustainability by default will be more welcomed by customers because the focus is not on the company.

Educating the customer is the key to moving towards good by default. If restaurants are going to not serve water or straws except on request, then they need to find simple ways to educate the customer. The company gets a double benefit. First, they save money by using less resources and they gain goodwill from the emerging sustainable consumer even if the customer chooses bad.

Of course, just like those electronic voice systems, every company will save money by reducing resource and energy usage. But unlike those voice systems meant to keep us from talking to a real human being, our customers are more likely to be more attracted to a brand trying to conserve, not less so.

Now imagine the cumulative impact of making good the default option in every business: How much energy would we save? How much CO2 would be reduced? How many consumers might become even more committed to responsible brands?

The same can be said of employees who, in increasingly large numbers, say they want to work for conscientious companies. Not only can we educate our team members on why we are moving towards good by default but we can also involve them in coming up with creative ways to make good the default option, thus making them feel their work is more purposeful. Educated and committed team members are also critical if customers are going to accept the new good by default in a positive way.

How to make 'breaking bad' a choice

Right now, “breaking bad,” so to speak, is the default option in many cases. Those of us involved in the purpose-driven brand movement need to begin a robust conversation about how we can make choosing sustainability the default option. Most consumers and employees want to do good and the more we can make this the path of least resistance, the more we can accelerate this movement.

One way to start is to get team members to start identifying ways to make sustainability the default option. Have a company-wide contest to identify the top five ‘good by default’ efforts that will bring the most significant results for your sustainability agenda.

Good by Default and personal sustainability

This simple idea can even help with your own sustainability. A friend of mine loves to play basketball, which is good for both his health and his well-being. But he is also a very busy professional, often missing his Wednesday evening pick-up game because something would come up at work. So he made the decision to volunteer to be the one who kept the key for the gym they used for the weekly game. Now, come basketball time, the path of least resistance is to go and play because to choose “bad,” he has to find a way to get the key to another player. Not only is there the personal hassle of doing so, but then there is the psychic pain of choosing not to take care of himself. Since taking the key, he has almost never missed a weekly game.


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