Good By Default: Making Sustainability the Easiest Choice

Good By Default: Making Sustainability the Easiest Choice

good vs bad 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 Globe Scan 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.

It is my belief that we have been way too focused on getting people to do the right thing. 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%. In contrast, Belgium’s default option is to donate organs (an “opt-out” system), in which about 98% of the population consent to donation. So in Belgium you have to choose not to help others when you die whereas in America you have to choose to do so.

The bottom line is that people tend to choose 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. Software developers know this and research in technology shows that the vast majority of people never change the default options on their devices.

A simple example in our personal life of Good by Default is to 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 story which is a lot harder than just eating the good stuff.

Let me give you a simple sustainability example of making the right thing, the easiest choice. One of my frustrations is watching people use all those paper towels at public restrooms when electric hand driers are an option. That is why the new terminal at San Francisco Airport caught my attention. The hand driers are right next to the sink, clearly visible and accessible, 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.

Good by Default Means Having to Choose Bad

One of my theories behind this idea of good by default, is that it’s easier to get people not to choose bad, than it is to get them to choose to do good. Let me give you a simple 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 or a sign 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 now 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 to do 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 give you the can to drink from directly, unless you ask for a plastic cup
  • Printers in every business are set to copy double sided as the default, unless you change the default
  • Hotels don’t change your sheets, unless you specifically request it
  • Boarding passes automatically come to your smart phone 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 all in one 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
  • Municipalities collect recyclables every week but garbage only twice per month (this is done in my city of Vancouver, Canada and trust me it changes behavior)

Creative Thinking Keynotes

Good by Default is good for Your 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. The best example are electronic calling options that make using the electronic system easier than getting to a human being. Customers 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 routinely provide water or straws only 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 our brand not less so.

Now start to 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 sustainable brands?

The same can be said of employees who, in increasingly large numbers, say they want to work for companies that are “green.” 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 their work more purposeful. Educated and committed team members are critical if customers are going to accept Good by Default in a positive way.

Let’s Start a Conversation—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 sustainable brands movement need to begin a robust conversation of 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 the 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 efforts. Get your research and development team to identify ways to hard wire all systems towards Good by Default.

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 emotional well-being. But he’s also a very busy professional and often missed 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 choosing “bad” means finding a way to get the key to another player. Not only is there the personal hassle of transferring the key, but then there is the psychic pain of choosing not to take care of himself. He made doing good, the default option.

Since taking the key, he has almost never missed a weekly game.


Dr. John Izzo has spoken to over one million people, advised over 500 companies, authored nine best-selling books, and helped some of the world's most admired companies. He has been a pioneer in creating successful businesses and emerging work trends for over twenty-five years.

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