Ways to redesign food delivery apps to nudge the public into consuming less unsustainable packaging

20 July 2020

10-minute read for mobile food delivery companies, users of food delivery apps, restaurants, local and national policy-makers, and digital startups

The coronavirus pandemic and need for social distancing have inadvertently led to a greater demand for online food delivery services. Stringent dine-in requirements and safety protocols in commercial spaces, increased work from home setup, and home quarantine have all led to a surge in online delivery. Online food delivery industry is considered as one of the few growing industries during amid the crisis. But this has also led to a major environmental problem: a surge in packaging waste.

At the peak of the lockdown in the Philippines, mobility trends for places like restaurants, cafes, shopping centers, theme parks, museums, libraries, and movie theaters have dropped by up to 87 per cent from baseline on 4th May 2020, and by 63 per cent as of 13th July 2020 compared to baseline. According to Google's COVID-19 Community Mobility Report methodology, the baseline days are computed as the median value over the five‑week period from January 3rd to February 6th 2020.1

Mobility trends in the Philippines for places like restaurants, cafes, shopping centers, theme parks, museums, libraries, and movie theaters.
Source: https://ourworldindata.org/covid-mobility-trends using data published from Google LLC "Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports".

Meanwhile, in an updated projection released by Statista based on COVID-19 trends, revenue in the Online Food Delivery market is projected to reach US$247m in 2020, representing an annual growth of 17.4 percent. A big percentage of this is accounted for by restaurant-to-consumer delivery, with a projected market volume of US$179m in 2020.

Projections on the number of users (in millions) who will be using delivery platforms like online apps (increasing to 2.7 million by 2020 and 5.7 million by 2024) and deliveries directly from restaurants (increasing to 7.5 million by 2020 and 11.6 million by 2024).
Source: Data published online by Statista "Online Food Delivery - Philippines"

This piece is based on a project undertaken at Green Labs hosted by the Oxford Hub from May until June 2020. The Green Labs is a six-week programme run by Oxford Hub and funded by the Department of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Oxford, for people who want to learn to make change happen through community action. Behaviorale's Founder and Executive Director was part of a team who worked on a project which aimed to tackle increased food packaging waste caused by the demand boom in online food delivery services from restaurants and supermarkets in Oxford during the pandemic. By understanding local data, consumer behavior and possible behavioral interventions, the team explored how we can shift to alternative packaging and change the way delivery services operate. One of the outcomes was a list of interface design nudges for digital food delivery apps to tackle the packaging waste boom. In this piece, we apply the insights to the Philippine context.

The following are the objectives of the project in the context of online food delivery:

  • Reduced single use plastic packaging (plastic straws, utensils, plastic lunch boxes or food containers, plastic bags)

  • Increased use of alternative packaging (eco-bags, paper bags, averted use of plastic straws and utensils)

The local landscape

The primary stakeholders are mobile food delivery companies given their intermediary role between consumers and restaurants, establishing extensive digital food delivery infrastructures with the primary goal of delivering food and achieving optimal sales outcomes. Mobile applications provide a digital platform for customers to place and track their order while offering various payment options. They also have a feedback system which allows customers to provide recommendations and review the quality of the service.2 Given their entrepreneurial nature in the digital startup space, food delivery apps can be described as ‘innovators,’ or those stakeholders most receptive to change, venturesome and interested in new ideas.3 This provides a good starting point in terms of introducing soft changes such as nudges. In the Philippines, the major food delivery apps are Grab, FoodPanda, LalaFood, and Zomato PH. They have a significant market presence in Metro Manila, and they are also present in other provinces like Laguna, Cebu, Cavite, Pampanga, and Rizal.

Secondary stakeholders include those from the supply-side (fast food chains, restaurants, milk tea shops and coffee chains) and the demand-side (customers including households, students, young professionals and families). It is also important to note the importance of suppliers of materials for alternative packaging such as paper bags, biodegradable materials and bioplastics. In a preliminary survey the team conducted in the original project, majority of the customers using online delivery services mentioned that they would prefer or switch to a food delivery app that is more environmentally sustainable.

To understand the local context, it is important to understand the following:

  • Supply side (restaurants): Availability/cost/suppliers of alternative packaging materials, willingness to scale up alternative packaging, environmental sustainability goals, waste packaging data (how much is generated everyday from online food delivery)

  • Demand side (customers): Preference for environmentally-sustainable packaging, perceptions on hygiene and safety of alternative packaging, patterns on use of utensils at home

Interface design nudges

By leveraging concepts in behavioral economics and applying it to the way food apps are designed, we hope to nudge customers into opting for more sustainable alternatives. We specifically look at the framework called MINDSPACE, a mnemonic developed by Dolan and team (2009) to describe nine of the most robust influences on human behavior. These include: messenger, incentives, norms, defaults, salience, priming, affect, commitments, and ego. To borrow the words of Dolan and team, "we are interested in the soft touch of policy rather than its heavy hand: going with the grain of human nature, rather than rubbing us up the wrong way."4

It should be noted that these interventions are initial recommendations and they have to be tested on a small-scale pilot experiment with a treatment and control group. Among others, experimental design parameters to be defined should include the baseline waste data across the different types of waste, disaggregated outcome per nudge intervention, and the frequency of use and relationship with demographic data such as age, gender and income group. Where possible, this process should be complemented by qualitative analysis through one-on-one interviews and deliberations analyzing perceptions on the changes introduced. The results then have to be assessed carefully before scaling up.

1. Prompting default options

Thaler and Sustein (2008) in their pioneering book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness” describe default options as pre-set courses of action that are perceived as the recommended course of action. Given the thousands -- in fact, millions -- of information we process daily, we almost always "go with the flow of pre-set options"5.

Using nudge principles we posit that the sustainable option should be the default principle in food delivery apps. There are two ways to do this.

First, the default option for requesting cutlery (in apps without this option, this must be added) must be that no cutlery is requested. In other words, not requesting for utensils and straws should be the default option.

“Your order will come in biodegradable packaging. Select otherwise.”

The current setup on Grab is not as such. Take a look at the current design of the app below (design A and design B). Using a similar approach, other packaging options available can also be introduced as a default option. This includes a default for biodegradable packaging where possible for the restaurant or food supplier. This has to be complemented by social norm reinforcement which is discussed in the next item under "leveraging social norms and commitment."

"Good job for reducing your waste footprint."

Second, there have to be choices on packaging per item order with the more sustainable alternative packaging as the default option where possible. Aside from the default principle, interspersing such barriers reinforces social norm several times. See design B below for reference to the choices on packaging per item.

Current design A: What is the default option?

Current design B: There is a long-list of options about this item. What else can be added?

2. Leveraging social norms and commitments

Individuals draw signals from broader social contexts which influence their own behavior, identities and decision, taking social cues almost automatically. In the case of food delivery apps, we suggest notifications applying this behavioral concept. We posit that social norm messaging embedded into the app can help prompt positive behavior. We again use the example of Grab.

As in design A, when viewing the Cart right before the order, Grab shows a button that gives the customer an option to request for utensils and straws. If the customer does this, we encourage a message based on the actual rate (87% is just an example).

"Are you sure? 87 % of our Grab customers did not opt for single use plastics."

"Good job for reducing your waste footprint."

If the actual uptake rate is high enough, asking for utensils should show up as a notification, showing that majority of customers did not request for plastics, utensils, or straws. This type of social norm messaging draws from broader perceptions about public behavior guiding individual action. Another similar prompt that can be used is the inclusion of a “green environmental logo” which should be re-colored from green to red, reinforcing negative messaging about social norms. The same can be applied in the feedback loop when evaluating the restaurant. For example, Grab would ask "what was great about your order?" with options: "taste, price, food quality, packaging, delivery time." This should include environmental sustainability parameters such as 'sustainable packaging' or 'zero plastic.' This provides a positive reinforcement or incentive -- another nudge principle.

Another social norm intervention that can be introduced is a "one-stop shop" option in the person's app profile or account, which indicates a pre-commitment to reduce waste packaging. This has to be shown publicly perhaps with a green environmental logo, which should also be viewable to drivers and restaurants. There is strong evidence that a pre-commitment or pledge to do follow some act, which can be validated externally, strongly influences personal actions. People, after all, " seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts."6

3. Partner up with reliable messengers

In MINDSPACE, Dolan and team (2009) describe humans as "heavily influenced by who communicates information". Our reactions to the information we receive are influenced by the level of authority and reliability of the source of the information. There is research showing that health educators and research assistants, as "authorities and experts," have been effective social agents in changing social behavior to achieve health outcomes.7

Building on this principle, we posit that food delivery apps can establish partnerships with non-governmental organizations who are strong advocates for the environment. How would you feel (in terms of level of compliance and trust) if the following message came from an established social agent such as WWF-Philippines?

"Good job for reducing your waste footprint. Share this to your friends."

WWF-Philippines has a strong record advocating for environmental sustainability and climate action in the country. They also have a project called "The Sustainable Diner." According to their project website, the project "hopes to lessen food wastage and contribute to the improvement of the implementation of sustainable consumption and production processes in the foodservice sector. The Sustainable Diner project aims to engage the government, food service businesses, and consumers in promoting sustainable dining practices and in making the Philippines’ food service industry more environmentally friendly."

Test, assess, iterate and scale up

The design interventions above are some of our initial recommendations for food delivery apps to make their processes more environmentally sustainable. There are many more possibilities beyond design interface that can be drawn from existing research and literature. These can include nudge interventions in areas such as human resources, logistics, external communications, and with alternative objectives such as improved efficiency, productivity, or health safety in the time of COVID-19.

At the end of the day, nudges must be kept easy, simple, attractive and relevant (EAST).8 They are soft interventions that must be validated through actual piloting and if effective, hopefully they can contribute to reductions to the growing food waste from the food delivery industry and beyond.

1 Google, 2020. COVID-19 Community Mobility Report. Available at <https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/> Accessed 18 July 2020. 2 Jacob, A.M., Sreedharan, N.V. & Sreena.K., May 2019. Consumer Perception of Online Food Delivery Apps in Kochi. International Journal of Innovative Technology and Exploring Engineering (IJITEE). 3 Singer, L. On the Diffusion of Innovations: How New Ideas Spread. Available at <https://leif.me/2016/12/on-the-diffusion-of-innovations-how-new-ideas-spread/> Accessed: 18 July 2020. 5 Thaler, R. & Sustein, C., 2008. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. London: Penguin Books. 4, 6, 7 Dolan, P., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., King, D., Vlaev, I., 2010. MINDSPACE: Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy. The Institute for Government and Cabinet Office, London. 8 Service, O., et al. April 8 2020. EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. Available at <https://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/BIT-Publication-EAST_FA_WEB.pdf> The Behavioral Insights Team. Accessed: 18 July 2020.