Why We Need More Green Default Settings

By Nandhini Narayanan, First Year MBA student at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore

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How extending green default setting on more products is the only way to curb waste

Nandhini Narayanan

When I was nineteen, I was part of a student-led grassroots level campaign to increase household composting. The team selected a small, local residential neighbourhood in Chennai. The residents had low incomes. Our goal was to educate residents on composting, show them how to maintain a basic compost pit and use it to compost household degradable wastes.

The effort was a complete failure. Barely anyone gave us time. The ones who did were unwilling to compost. It was my first brush with a sustainability communication challenge.

The team re-evaluated. We went back, but this time, we brought them a deal. If they maintained their compost pits for 6-8 months, a local organics company would purchase the manure back from them at an attractive price. This incentive created willingness to listen. When they did, we could pass on information about sustainable practices and how it was important for their children to live in a world with fewer landfills.

It’s been nine years since that first experience but things don’t seem to have improved. All I see is climate anxiety, action paralysis and apathy. As a student at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, I am working with a team to institute a student-driven cardboard re-use system across campus. Though the institute is eager and supportive to find a way to handle the huge volumes of packaging material that flows in and out of IIM-B, we found that student apathy is a formidable foe.

Ordering stuff online is convenient. Throwing away cardboard and plastic wastes after opening a parcel is convenient. Ditto for period wastes. A menstrual cup would remove tons of sanitary napkin wastes from cluttering up landfills, but using pads or tampons is convenient. Users are not able to relate to the ecological cost of convenience.

In the age of convenience trumping everything else, climate communication is more important than ever. How messages about sustainability are crafted, communicated, received, and interpreted, I have found, firm willingness for climate action.

What’s In It For Me?

Recently, I heard Ms. Anvita Kasar, founder of Aranyaarth Foundation speak at IIM-B. Ms. Kasar’s organization is working on recreating “wilderness corridors.” When forests grow in isolation, they lose much of the interconnected eco-systems that natural forests require to thrive. Ms. Kasar implied that the nature of climate change messaging needs to move from over-simplified statements like “plant more trees” to a narrative driven method where we tell human stories that connect to community and answer that crucial question – what is in it for me?

Of course, climate communication research has known this for years. The information deficit model (which presumes that people will act if they were better informed about the crisis) is obsolete. We know today that it is essential to craft messages that persuade different people using different leverage points.

One way is to point out the economic benefits of a sustainable society, similar to the success I found in my teen years when we used financial incentives to achieve a sustainability goal. But in recent years, I have been wondering about the burden of choice. Since convenience is crucial and people do not want to think about making a greener choice, what if we made it the absolute default? We could leverage the default effect and remove decision making.

Next generation AI and home improvement systems (like the next Alexa, for instance) could turn out lights when we leave a room or assist in segregation at the source without the user’s intervention. Over time, this could translate to catching a fuel-inefficient car or refrigerator. The opportunities are endless. We could create a society of greener citizens without anyone having to think about it.

Since apathy is preventing climate-friendly decision making, perhaps the way to go is to make the climate-friendly option the default. Several of my peers at IIM-B have expressed interest in and worked on creating blueprints of products that incorporate green defaults. It’s a small step but a significant, hopefully one that can kindle a new green revolution.

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