Automatically Green

PLANTS_clover_CA_alecharrisBy Caroline Stern — Nov. 18, 2013 at 5:16pm

Over the coming months, the ELR blog will be publishing a series of blog posts that preview articles that will appear in the forthcoming Volume 38.1. This blog is the first in that series.

In the forthcoming issue of the Harvard Environmental Law Review, Professors Cass Sunstein and Lucia Reisch offer an excellent resource for policymakers seeking ways to encourage consumers to choose green energy instead of environmentally unfriendly (“gray”) energy.  Their article, “Automatically Green: Behavioral Economics and Environmental Protection,” provides a “choice architecture” that analyzes the pros and cons of different possible approaches to encouraging green behavior.  At one end of the spectrum is imposing green mandates on consumers (legally banning gray options); at the other end is relying on consumers to make active choices to be green.  Between these two extremes is implementing green defaults—such as the automatic double-sided printer setting in offices and schools—which promote green options, but also permit consumers to deviate from them.

The article discusses in detail the economic and environmental costs and benefits associated with each approach.  In order to implement any one of these methods effectively, policymakers must also assess the political and social contexts surrounding their choices.  For example, employees would likely be receptive to green defaults in their offices because the impacts are limited to the physical place of work and do not affect their personal finances.  By contrast, the general consumer population may be less receptive to green defaults in their homes because such policies can directly affect their privacy and personal expenses.

The article notes a troubling example of why policymakers may need to be attuned to the politics of the targeted consumer population: at least one study has found that certain politically conservative households will actually increase their energy consumption when informed that their consumption levels exceed those of their peers.  It is important to note that the policy used in that study was a “social norms” approach—not green defaults—which seeks to change behavior by informing consumers about the greener habits of their peers.  However, it is possible that green defaults could provoke the same resistance if consumers viewed the default as an unwanted interference with their private choices.  This disheartening behavioral pattern illustrates that, in at least certain limited circumstances, consumers’ political and social views can foil environmentally friendly policies, despite the benefits of going green.

In some contexts, it may be difficult to predict the politics or social views of the likely consumer population when implementing a green policy.  In order to avoid the risk of backlash, it may be worthwhile to consider, as an alternative, a variation on the green default: “green design,” a facially neutral policy that has subtle yet meaningful impacts on consumer behavior.  A green design approach has already succeeded in experiments promoting healthy eating choices through subtle rearrangements of lunch buffets and supermarkets.

In the absence of contextual information about political or social attitudes, green design should appeal to policymakers because it may be more neutral in appearance than mandates or ordinary defaults.  Unlike defaults, which explicitly promote one option over another, green design reinforces the message that the consumer retains full control over his or her choices; its subtlety also means it may be less likely to provoke backlash.  Green defaults have proven to be an especially effective, low-cost approach, but green design could be a viable option for policymakers seeking alternative ways to facilitate green choices.