Nudging for change: fighting climate crisis from our kitchens

August 8, 2022
Photo: UNDP Egypt

An average adult makes THOUSANDS of decisions every day. Most of those decisions are intuitive and automatic responses, highly influenced by emotions, personal biases, or social influences.

Researchers at Cornell University have estimated that we make 226.7 daily decisions on food alone. But how much of those decisions are rational, picking for example healthy recipes over fast food or immediate taste reward? More ambitiously, how many times do we consider the effect of our meal choices on the external environment beyond our own bodies?

Food choices we make every day have a strong relation with the environment. Although this is not obvious to most people, when one includes agriculture, transportation, food waste, etc., food accounts for up to 30% of a household carbon food print and is therefore a major contribution to global warming and climate change. Small alterations in what we buy and eat can help mitigate much of those effects. On the other side of this vicious cycle, climate change is putting food production at risk and we need to start deliberately consuming more resilient agricultural products as part of climate change adaptation efforts.

UNDP Egypt Accelerator lab has experimented with behavioral insights to learn how we can wake up to more deliberate and rational food choices to adapt to climate change. Behavioral insights approaches combine concepts from psychology and economics to discover how humans make choices and use these insights to drive positive action.

Leveraging the power of social media, we partnered with “Kitchenista” Facebook community, a highly engaged community of 230 thousand all-women members, sharing recipes, ingredients, and food hacks. This wide base of cooking women was the anchor of our learning journey.

Among different behavioral change tools, we built our experimental design around “Nudges”. Nudges are gentle persuasions and indirect positive reinforcements that can alter behavior and decision making. Our learning question was: where can we nudge the consumer into new eating habits that are more climate resilient?

We tested with four potential aspects of food choice architecture. 1- diversity of recipes consumed, 2- convenience, in terms of time and accessibility, 3- the weight of nutritional value, and 4- the motive to be part of a large-scale impact.

The experiment engaged with our target audience through a variety of content types, such as organic social media posts, deliberate polls, and engaging live with influencing cooks. All around integration and consumption of selected climate resilient ingredients: lentils, cabbage, mushroom, and quinoa.

What we have learnt from this experiment can be a gateway for future solutions design, as part of agri-food system transformation. We were able to identify five main triggers that can have direct influence on food consumption decisions within the household:

  1. The strongest motive to meal choices and diversification is family acceptance. The experiment initially targeted women since they are the main caretakers in the household in Egyptian culture. They are in charge of food intake for the family and hold the purse strings when it comes to food purchase. However, their meal decisions are found to be extremely influenced by husbands and kids' resistance to change. Nudging should hence target the whole family eating behavior not only women choices.
  2. The second most repeated trigger was accessibility of ingredients in the house. The decision of what to cook today mostly starts with “shopping your pantry”, that is checking what’s already available in the kitchen. To consume more climate resilient ingredients in our recipes we might need to start nudging early on at the supermarket, influence the shopping list or purchasing behavior.
  3. Third trigger was fit to easy recipe with clear ingredients and steps. Partial introduction into simple dishes came strongly as a suggestion with much of recipes ideas was leaning towards salads, appetizers, and soups.
  4. Fourth determinant is price of ingredients, specially concerns associated with seasonality. Here questions and reflections on local production dominated the conversation, as it can highly affect price and accessibility. This links directly to the idea of system change: shifting to climate resilient consumption must come hand in hand with affordability, change in national agriculture production pattern and food market update.
  5. Finally, healthy replacements were very appealing but conditional to previous triggers.

We have also observed a general curious sentiment of women towards climate change and the idea of being part of a change. Furthermore, they expressed emotional associations with the idea of supporting small holders’ farmers and saving future generations.

Women started asking for more expansive list of climate resilient ingredients to cater for different tastes and allow for easier subtle replacement. When given the chance they became very innovative with recipes ideas to consume more of proposed ingredients and try to keep sensorials close to traditional food for smooth transition.

When we are facing such complex issues like adapting to climate change, we must step out of traditional approaches. Under the UN secretary general “common agenda”, behavioral science was identified as part of the “Quintet of change” alongside with data, innovation, and strategic foresight. This is a testimony of how behavioral science can be a powerful tool in designing solutions, interventions, and policies towards reaching sustainable development goals.

Even a small nudge in the right place can lead to big change. That change can happen anywhere perhaps in your house … in your kitchen!

Reach out to the Accelerator lab team for more discussions and ideation. The future is calling!

When we are facing such complex issues like adapting to climate change, we must step out of traditional approaches.