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How some grocery store mirrors nudge you toward healthier choices

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This is an encore episode that aired originally on April 26, 2014.


The field of behavioural economics is a relatively new area of study.

While influencing behaviour has been intensely studied by the advertising industry for decades, the subtle motivation now being employed has taken a big leap forward.

The classic definition of behavioural economics is to gently steer people toward decisions that improve their lives – while still leaving them free to choose. To get them to take a little step in order to undertake a bigger one.

That gentle ushering is based on both the social and emotional factors behind decision-making.

In other words, the concept resides at the intersection of economics and psychology.

Colours gently influence purchasing decisions. Slowing the buying process down by adding additional steps can be influential.

But using a nudge is different.

Consumers are not always rational in their decisions, and will many times make a poor decision even when provided good options. And in many instances, the way a question is framed can influence a decision for the better.

That’s why behavioural economics has also been referred to as “choice architecture.”

It is the deliberate designing of choices in order to steer someone to a positive outcome.

The term “nudge” was first put forth in a fascinating book of the same name by behavioural science professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

The stories they told not only influenced marketers, schools and shoppers, but governments as well.


In Britain, the government tried to encourage homeowners to insulate their attics to save energy costs and prevent heat loss.

As part of that campaign, the government put forth compelling economic arguments to persuade the public to insulate.

On top of that, generous monetary incentives and subsidies were offered.

An attic-cleaning service turned into a money-saving service. (Credit: The Family Handyman) Yet, nothing seemed to work. The public appeared to have no interest in insulating their attics and saving money in heating costs—which puzzled the government.

But when they dug further, they stumbled upon the reason for the resistance.

Apparently, UK homeowners simply didn’t want to clear the junk out of their attics.

In the UK, attics are storage spaces. And just the thought of having to clear out their attics was enough for people to forgo the energy savings of insulating.

Once the government had isolated that reason, they got to work on an interesting solution. They teamed up with a local home improvement company and offered an attic-cleaning service.

With that, the amount of people who insulated soared.

The attic cleaning offer was the “nudge” to get people to do the bigger thing: to insulate.


A supermarket in El Paso, Texas, tried their own nudge experiment to see if they could steer people toward healthier foods.

A man ponders his self-image in a supermarket in El Paso, Texas. (NYT) It placed a mirror on the inside front of grocery carts, allowing people to see themselves as they shopped. So when people reached for junk food and turned back toward their cart, they saw an image of their double chins in the mirror.

The store saw a dramatic increase in the purchase of fruits and vegetables as a result.

The mirror was the nudge.

In a Virginia store, each shopping cart had a line of yellow tape that divided the cart in half. A sign in the cart asked shoppers to put fruit and veggies in the front half of the cart, and everything else in the back half.

When shoppers saw how few fruits and vegetables were in the front half compared to the less healthy items in the back of their carts, they were influenced to change the way they shopped.

Produce sales shot up by 102 per cent.

The visual of the dividing line was the nudge.


Recently, several retailers and some New York City cabs have added a digital tipping feature to their tablet and mobile apps.

Calculating a tip is frustrating for many people. And research has shown that if you can lessen the amount of mental effort required to work out a tip – the greater the chance of leaving one.

Tipping has never been so easy. (John Lesavage/CBC News) So many companies are giving customers three digital options:

The first is called “Basic” and leaves 15 per cent.

The second is called “Better” and leaves an automatic 18 per cent.

The third is called “Best” and leaves a nice, fat 20 per cent tip.

The presence of those three nudges has not only resulted in more people leaving tips – but the resulting amounts have been greater.


For these stories and more from Under The Influence, click or tap on the “Listen” tab to hear the full episode.

You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.


Under The Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio – a 1969 Airstream trailer that’s been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O’Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

Follow the journey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and search for the hashtag: #Terstream.

(Image Credit: Sidney O’Reilly)

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Canadian report reveals spike in food-related litter during pandemic

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TORONTO — Restaurants’ inability to offer their usual dine-in service during much of 2020 may explain why an unusually high amount of food-related litter was found across the country, a new report says.

The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup (GCSC) is an annual program in which volunteers are encouraged to clean up green spaces and other natural areas.

Last year, single-use food and beverage containers made up 26.6 per cent of waste collected through the program – nearly twice as high a percentage as in 2019, before the pandemic.

“We suspect the change may be one of the many implications of COVID-19, including more people ordering restaurant takeaway and consuming more individually packaged foods,” GCSC spokesperson Julia Wakeling said in a press release.

While food- and beverage-related litter accounted for a greater percentage of waste uncovered by GCSC than in the past, it wasn’t the single largest category of items picked up through the program last year.

That dubious honour goes to cigarette butts and other smoking-related paraphernalia, which comprised nearly 29 per cent of all items collected. There were more than 83,000 cigarette butts among the 42,000 kilograms of waste found and clean up last year.

So-called “tiny trash” – little pieces of plastic and foam – also accounted for a sizeable share of the waste, making up 26.8 per cent of the total haul.

In addition to smoking-related items and tiny trash, the main pieces of litter removed by GCSC volunteers last year included nearly 22,000 food wrappers, more than 17,500 pieces of paper, more than 13,000 bottle caps and more than 10,000 beverage cans.

Discarded face masks and other forms of personal protective equipment were also detected and cleaned up, although not tallied in their own category.  PPE waste has been repeatedly cited as a concern by environmental advocates during the pandemic; a robin in Chilliwack, B.C. is the earliest known example of an animal that died due to coronavirus-related litter.

The GCSC is an annual program organized by Ocean Wise and the World Wildlife Fund Canada. Its operations were disrupted by the pandemic as well; only 15,000 volunteers took part in the program last year, versus 85,000 in 2019, due to delays and public health restrictions making large group clean-ups impossible.

Still, there was GCSC participation from every province and the Northwest Territories in 2020. Nearly half of the volunteers who took part were based in B.C., where the program began in 1994.

Data from past GCSC reports was used as part of the research backing Canada’s ban on certain single-use plastic items, which is scheduled to take effect by the end of 2021.

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Canada: Significant Changes To Canada’s Federal Environmental Protection Regime Proposed

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On April 13, 2021, the government of Canada proposed significant changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (“CEPA”)1 through the introduction of Bill C-28, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act (the “Amendments“).2

With these Amendments, the government hopes to modernize Canada’s environmental regime which has not undergone significant change in over 20 years. CEPA is the primary statute through which the federal government regulates and protects the environment. CEPA and its accompanying regulations regulate among other things the treatment and disposal of chemicals and hazardous waste, vehicle and engine emissions, equipment and other sources of pollution, and the prevention and impact of environmental emergencies such as oil and chemical spills.

This bulletin provides an overview of the major changes to CEPA that have been proposed.

The Right to a Healthy Environment and Certain Soft Rights

Significantly, the Preamble under the Amendments will officially recognize Canadians’ right to a healthy environment. Section 2 of CEPA will require the government to protect that right when making decisions relating to the environment.3

The Amendments set out specific obligations the government must undertake to safeguard this right, including developing an implementation framework to set out how this right will be considered in the administration of CEPA as well as conducting research, studies and monitoring activities to support this goal.

In addition, the Preamble will recognize some additional considerations, including confirming the government’s commitment to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as well as recognizing the importance of considering vulnerable persons, reducing or replacing the use of animal testing, and the right of Canadians to have access to information on product labels.

Project Impact Assessment

With respect to risk assessments under CEPA, under the new provisions the federal government must consider impacts on vulnerable populations and possible cumulative effects of the proposed conduct. Vulnerable populations will include groups of people with elevated biological susceptibility, such as children, and groups with elevated exposure risks, such an indigenous communities. Consideration of cumulative effects of proposed conduct takes a holistic approach to substance management by considering the compounding risks of exposure to various chemicals during daily life rather than looking at substances on their own.

Chemicals Management

The federal government has identified the management of chemicals as a key target area under the new CEPA.

The Amendments thus propose to overhaul this regime in order to better protect Canadians from the evolving risks of harmful chemicals and pollution. To accomplish this, the government has proposed wide ranging changes relating to risk assessment, public accountability, management of toxic substances and new substances, which are discussed in turn below.

Risk Assessment

The government must consult, develop and publish a Plan of Chemicals Management Priorities which will set out an integrated plan for the risk assessment of various chemical substances currently being used in Canada. The Plan will establish priorities for the management of substances, taking into account a number of factors including among others the views of stakeholders and partners, public comments, the effects on vulnerable populations, the toxicity of the substance, the ability to disrupt biological reproduction or endocrine systems, and whether there are safer and more sustainable alternatives.4 The government will also be empowered to make geographically targeted regulations to address pollution “hot spots”.

Additionally, the Amendments will establish a mechanism through which any person can submit a request to the Minister to assess a substance to determine its toxicity and risk to the environment. The Minister must provide a response within 90 days, indicating whether they intend to assess the substances and their reasons for their decision.

Public Accountability Framework

The Amendments intend to increase transparency and public participation in risk assessments by the government for the categorization and management of potentially toxic chemicals. Currently, CEPA contains a public accountability framework under section 77 and provides time limits for the government to assess substances under sections 91 and 92. However, these provisions only apply to certain risk assessments being conducted by the government such as substances placed on the Domestic Substances List that in the opinion of the Minister present the greatest potential for exposure to Canadians or are persistent or bio-accumulative. The proposed Amendments plan to amend section 77 to expand these transparency and accountability measures to all substance risk assessments for toxic or capable of being toxic substances, with the exception of assessments for new substances.5

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Scientists, Homalco First Nation team up to probe massive B.C. landslide — and its impact on salmon

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When the side of a B.C. mountain gave way on Nov. 28, 2020, crashing into a glacier fed lake and creating a 100-metre high tsunami, no one was around to see the destruction or hear the sound of rocks and trees tearing through the valley below. 

But scientists say the force, which was picked up by seismographs across North America, was the equivalent of a 4.9-magnitude earthquake. 

Fortunately, no one was in the slide’s path, but experts believe that a melting glacier likely contributed by making the slope less stable — and climate change means it is a growing risk. 

As more of Canada’s glaciers recede, scientists say there is great interest in finding out what exactly triggered this slide, and how the rocks and sediment have impacted the salmon population of nearby Elliot Creek and Southgate River. 

The mountain, which is located about 220 km north west of Vancouver, is on the traditional territory of the Homalco First Nation. 

It’s an area of remote wilderness, only accessible by air or by boating 80 km up Bute Inlet.

When the slide hit last year, more than 18 million cubic meters of rock barrelled down the slope hitting the lake within 30 seconds. 

“That is the equivalent of all of the cars in Canada coming down the hill at once,” said Marten Geertsema, a geomorphologist who works with the B.C. government studying landslides. 

He is one of several scientists, along with members from the Homalco First Nation, who have been studying the landslide and its cascading environmental impact on the watershed and salmon habitat. 

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