Can green nudges in online food deliveries lead to lesser pollution? A study conducted in China thinks so | Explained

A study conducted in China reveals that more people opt for no single-use cutlery in their orders through a simple change in default selection.

September 15, 2023 05:29 pm | Updated 05:30 pm IST

Person sorts plastic waste for recycling in Dong Xiao Kou village, on the outskirts of Beijing. (2015 file photo)

Person sorts plastic waste for recycling in Dong Xiao Kou village, on the outskirts of Beijing. (2015 file photo) | Photo Credit: AFP/Fred Dufour

The story so far: A study conducted in collaboration with an online food delivery platform in China found that making “no disposable cutlery” the default choice for orders and rewarding customers with “green points” led to a 648% increase in the share of no-cutlery orders. This step could have significant benefits for the environment, the study said.

A team of researchers, led by associate professor at the University of Hong Kong Guojun He, collaborated with Eleme, Alibaba’s food delivery platform, to analyse customer-level response to green nudges on the platform — changing the default to “no cutlery”, and setting up a reward system where points can be redeemed for planting trees in China’s deserts.

What are green nudges?

Green nudges are gentle persuasions to influence environment-friendly behaviour in people. In behavioural economics, nudges are interventions that influence people’s choices to make certain decisions without restricting the choices available to them.

The study with Alibaba used a difference-in-differences model — a statistical technique that compares outcomes over time between the experimental (or treated) group and a control group — and compares food-ordering behaviours of people in control cities versus people in cities where the green nudges were implemented.

The study also revealed features that distinguish the green nudges under it from the already available literature on the concept. Historically, nudges focus on short-term impacts, but the Alibaba study showed its persisting effect through individuals’ ordering behaviour.

Nudges have been criticised in the past for being manipulative: they are not always transparent and can sometimes bank on ignorance or lack of awareness in people to work. But researchers working on the study have said that the green nudges that they implemented are easy to understand and transparent to users. The reasons and underlying conditions of why and when nudges work is a matter of ongoing debate, and the study reportedly presents data to explore the “underlying mechanisms through which the green nudges affect individuals’ behaviours”.

Alibaba’s user interface, in cities where the study was conducted, was updated to show a window that required the customer to explicitly choose the number of sets of single-use cutlery (SUC) to be delivered with the order. The default option on this window was set to “no cutlery” and customers had to scroll down the screen to choose a different option. To prevent the window from popping up in future orders, customers could set any of the options as their new device-level default by clicking the “set as default” button.

(A) The old interface, in which the default cutlery option at the check-out page was preset as “with cutlery.” (B) The new interface in the treated cities. 

(A) The old interface, in which the default cutlery option at the check-out page was preset as “with cutlery.” (B) The new interface in the treated cities.  | Photo Credit: Reducing single-use cutlery with green nudges: Evidence from China’s food-delivery industry, by Guojon He, et al.

The no-cutlery option came with “green points” – a non-pecuniary incentive where 16 points were awarded to a user for every order without SUC. These points could be stored and accumulated in Alipay, Alibaba’s payments app. Once a user had accumulated 16,000 points, they could redeem them in exchange for a real tree to be planted and named after the customer in a desertified part of China.

However, the study also noted that getting a tree planted through only no-cutlery orders was challenging, and the average number of monthly no-cutlery orders for a consumer was only 0.77 from 2019 to 2020. The Alibaba platform also allowed its users to collect green points through other activities like walking more, taking more public transportation, selling used items, etc.

The purpose of green nudges

The green nudges were a result of Chinese regulations that prohibited online food delivery platforms from including SUCs in orders unless explicitly requested. In early 2020, China announced ambitious plans to phase out single-use plastics from the country, beginning with a country-wide ban on single-use straws by the end of the year. The plan noted that plastic bags would first be banned in the major cities, followed by a ban in all cities and towns. China plans to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic items in the restaurant industry by 30%, The Guardian has reported.

The data analysed in the study included the history of 1,97,062 randomly selected users’ monthly food orders and their green points, tree-planting records, and personal characteristics. The study commenced on January 1, 2019, and ended December 31, 2021, in 10 major Chinese cities. All consumers whose data were included placed at least one food delivery order during the period. Out of the ten cities, Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin were where the green nudges were introduced on the Alibaba app (the experimental or treated cities), while the other seven — Qingdao, Xi’an, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuhan, and Chengdu — were the control cities.

Researchers working on the study received funding support from the Research Grant Council of Hong Kong and Peking University.

Findings of the study

Under the study, the share of no-cutlery orders increased in the cities where it was conducted, but remained relatively unchanged throughout the study period in the control cities.

Trends in share of no-cutlery orders (SNCO).

Trends in share of no-cutlery orders (SNCO). | Photo Credit: Reducing single-use cutlery with green nudges: Evidence from China’s food-delivery industry, by Guojon He, et al.

The share of no-cutlery orders before the study was on average 3.1%. Green nudges were believed to have increased the share of no-cutlery orders by 19.3% in Shanghai, 21.2% in Beijing, and 20.4% in Tianjin. On average, they increased an individual’s share of no-cutlery orders by 20.1%. This amounted to a 648% increase in the frequency of no-cutlery orders overall.

Before the study was conducted, the share of no-cutlery orders in all cities was almost the same. But once the green nudges were introduced, the share of these orders in Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin increased significantly. The study also noted that media and public attention to plastic waste did not change significantly when the city-wide regulations were introduced, suggesting that the findings of the study were actually driven by green nudges on the app.

Around 83% of the individuals in Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin also responded positively to the green nudges. Another 6% did not show changes in cutlery choices on the app. The remaining 11% defied the nudges and behaved in the opposite direction to what was encouraged. It was also seen that most defiers had previously placed no-cutlery orders, suggesting that they possibly disliked being nudged.

The study also reported that the green nudges introduced on Alibaba’s online food delivery platform did not negatively impact its business. Both the total order amount and the total number of orders followed the same trend in the experimental and control cities, making the impact of green nudges on the platform’s business negligible. Note, however, that the total spending and total number of orders substantially dropped in early 2020 in all the cities, due to COVID-19.

An analysis of the study’s demographical results concluded that no-cutlery orders placed by women increased by 21.4% after the nudges were introduced, versus an 18.4% increase among men. The share of no-cutlery orders for customers between 18 and 24 years only increased by 11.9%, whereas for the middle-aged and elderly, the increase was around 30-34%.

Some observations have also suggested that affluence was a factor that differentiated how customers responded to green nudges. The share of no-cutlery orders for people who ordered meals using phones that cost more than $1,151 increased by 22.2% as a result of green nudges, which was 3.92% more than for those who ordered using phones that cost $273 or less (both as of January 2020).

People who ordered more expensive meals (based on pre-order expenditure) also responded more to green nudges on the Alibaba app.

Subsample analysis based on consumer characteristics.

Subsample analysis based on consumer characteristics. | Photo Credit: Reducing single-use cutlery with green nudges: Evidence from China’s food-delivery industry, by Guojon He, et al.  

Green nudges also increased the share of no-cutlery orders for individuals who had placed similar orders previously by 24%. This was 4-5% higher than for those who had never placed a no-cutlery order before, but the study said it is possible that this difference stems from environmental consciousness that individuals might have already that.

Over 18 months in Shanghai, eight months in Beijing, and one month in Tianjin, the number of SUCs reduced by more than 225.33 million sets. Although the weights and compositions of SUCs vary, the researchers estimated that this reduction may have prevented the generation of 4,506.52 metric tonnes of waste and saved 56,333 trees.

If all green points rewarded through the green nudges were used to plant trees, 112,665 additional trees could have been planted by Alibaba.

Do green nudges work in India?

According to the study paper, China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of SUCs. If Alibaba had introduced the green nudges to the entire country instead of just in three cities, more than 8.7 billion sets of SUC could have been saved every year in China, in accordance with the 2020 data. Additionally, total SUC consumption could have dropped by 21.75 billion sets if all food-delivery services in China adopted green nudges. This would be equivalent to eliminating 3.26 million metric tonnes of plastic waste.

Zomato, an online food delivery platform in India that occupies over 50% of market share in the space, also has similar nudges on its app. While the company says that the option to skip cutlery was always available on its platform, it changed the default selection to “no-cutlery” in August 2021.

“Zomato’s no-cutlery initiative was designed to reduce not just plastic but overall material waste. Our data suggests that three out of every five orders choose to opt out of receiving cutlery, which has resulted in an estimated 1,000 metric tonne reduction in cutlery waste till now,” Zomato’s Chief Sustainability Officer Anjalli Ravi Kumar told The Hindu.

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