Featured Published Research

Journal of Resources, Conservation & Recycling

Digital food sharing and food insecurity in the COVID-19 era

Sharing food surplus via the digital sharing economy is often discussed as a promising strategy to reduce food waste and mitigate food insecurity at the same time. Yet if and how the global pandemic has affected digital food sharing are not yet well understood. Leveraging a comprehensive dataset covering over 1.8 million food exchanges facilitated by a popular peer-to-peer food sharing platform, we find that UK activity levels not only rose during the Covid-19 pandemic, but outperformed projections. A potential explanation for this growth might be the rise of food insecurity during the pandemic. Yet examining the sociodemographic characteristics of platform users, average user activity and food exchanges before and during the pandemic, we find no compelling evidence that the platform's pandemic-era growth results from large influx of food insecure users. Instead, we poist that the growth in digital food sharing relates to lifestyle changes potentially triggered by the pandemic.

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Journal of Industrial Ecology

Rebound effect and sustainability science:
A review

Rebound effects have been historically studied through narrow framings which may overlook the complexity of sustainability challenges, sometimes leading to badly informed conclusions and policy recommendations. Here we present a critical literature review of rebound effects in the context of sustainability science in order to (1) map existing rebound research which goes beyond mainstream approaches, (2) unveil and classify current knowledge gaps in relation to sustainability science, (3) outline a research agenda, and (4) provide a knowledge base to support the design of effective policies towards sustainable development. We analysed the literature in accordance with seven criteria for sustainable assessment: boundary-orientedness, comprehensiveness, integratedness, stakeholder involvement, scalability, strategicness, and transparency. Our review identified three main issues: (1) the failure to address the multidimensionality of rebound effects, whereby both negative and positive outcomes may arise simultaneously, (2) the shift towards absolute rebound metrics which allow to contextualise its effect with respect to science and policy goals, and (3) a general lack of attention to behavioural effects. We conclude that addressing these issues will help rebound research gain explanatory power and relevance for key decision makers. We envision that with better alignment with sustainability science, future rebound research could help elucidate trade-offs in policies, including why certain strategies such as those based on the circular economy might fall short of expectations, and why achieving key goals and targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals is so challenging. This knowledge is crucial to promote a prioritisation of actions and a concrete transition towards sustainability.

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Journal of Cleaner Production

Is Repairability Enough? 

A dominant narrative surrounding smartphone lifespans suggests that their objective functional capabilities deteriorate rapidly and that if only devices were more repairable consumers would use them longer thereby reducing demand for new production and e-waste generation. Here we use a big-data approach to help unpack this narrative and examine two related yet distinct aspects: smartphone performance and obsolescence, and consumers interest in repair. Examining over 3.5 million iPhone benchmarking test scores, we reveal that the objective performance of devices remains very stable over time and does not rapidly deteriorate as common wisdom might suggest. In contrast, testing frequency varies substantially. This discrepancy suggests that factors other than objective performance meaningfully influence consumers’ perceptions of smartphone functionality and obsolescence. Relatedly, our analysis of 22 million visits to a website offering free repair manuals revels that interest in repair declines exponentially over time and that repairability does not necessarily prolong consumer’s interest in repair. Taken together, our findings indicate that non-technical aspects, such as mental depreciation and perceived obsolescence play a critical role in determining smartphone lifespans, and suggest that focus on the technical aspects of repairability as currently discussed by policy makers is unlikely to yield the desired extension in smartphone lifespan. We propose that sustainability advocates try to avoid narratives of planned obsolescence which might have counterproductive impacts on perceived obsolescence and consumer’s’ interest in repair, and instead highlight how well devices perform over time. More broadly, this work demonstrates the potential of using novel datasets to directly observe consumer behavior in natural settings, and improve our general understanding of issues such as planned obsolescence and repair.

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Prosocial nudges and visual indicators increase social distancing, but authoritative nudges do not

Social distancing reduces the transmission of COVID-19 and other airborne diseases. To test different ways to increase social distancing, we conducted a field experiment at a major US airport using a system that presented color-coded visual indicators on crowdedness. We complemented those visual indicators with nudges commonly used to increase COVID-19–preventive behaviors. Analyzing data from 57,146 travelers, we find that visual indicators and nudges significantly affected social distancing. Introducing visual indicators increased the share of travelers practicing social distancing, and this positive effect was enhanced by introducing nudges focused on personal benefits (“protect yourself”) and public benefits (“protect others”). Conversely, an authoritative nudge referencing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“don’t break CDC COVID-19 guidelines”) did not change social distancing behavior. Our results demonstrate that visual indicators and informed nudges can boost social distancing and potentially curb the spread of contagious diseases.

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Sharing economy rebound: The case of peer-to-peer sharing of food waste

The digital sharing economy is commonly thought to promote sustainable consumption and improve material efficiency through better utilization of existing product stocks. However, the cost savings and convenience of using digital sharing platforms can ultimately stimulate additional demand for products and services. As a result, some or even all of the expected environmental benefits attributed to sharing could be offset, a phenomenon known as the rebound effect. Relying on a unique dataset covering over 750,000 food items shared in the United Kingdom through a free peer-to-peer food-sharing platform, we use econometric modeling, geo-spatial network analysis, and environmentally extended input–output analysis to quantify how much of the expected environmental benefits attributed to sharing are offset via rebound effects under seven re-spending scenarios. We find that rebound effects can offset 59–94% of expected greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction, 20–81% of expected water depletion benefits, and 23–90% of land use benefit as platform users re-spent the money saved from food sharing on other goods and services. Our results demonstrate that rebound effects could limit the potential to achieve meaningful reductions in environmental burdens through sharing, and highlight the importance of incorporating rebound effects in environmental assessments of the digital sharing economy.

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Journal of Sustainable Marketing

Psychological Barriers to Sustainability:
Understanding Consumer Demand for Products with Redundant Functionalities

Despite the proliferation of multifunctional products, survey data suggests that instead of relying on one multifunctional product, consumers now rely on a community of multifunctional products, using them interchangeably to perform similar tasks. Such consumption patterns stand in stark contrast to consumers’ well-documented aversion towards waste. Why are consumers willing to dispose of multifunctional products that still have some working capabilities and/or pay for functional redundancies? We suggest that controlling for the absolute level of performance (e.g., the megapixels of the camera), consumers perceive the same functionality to be less valuable when it is performed by a multifunctional product (e.g., the camera on a smartphone) than by a single, dedicated product (an inexpensive digital camera). We investigate this phenomenon across a series of four experiments which are aimed at documenting the basic effect and elucidating the underlying psychology.

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Sustainable optimization of global aquatic omega-3 supply chain could substantially narrow the nutrient gap

Omega-3 EPA and DHA fatty acids are vital for human health, but current human nutritional requirements are greater than supply. This nutrient gap is poised to increase as demand increases and the abundance of aquatic foods and the amount of omega-3 they contain may dwindle due to climate change and overfishing. Identifying and mitigating loss and inefficiencies across the global aquatic supply chain has great potential for narrowing this nutrient gap. Here, using an optimization model, we show that omega-3 supply to humans could potentially increase by as much as 50% (reaching 630 kt y−1) compared to present baseline by shifting feed inputs to produce species that have the highest omega-3 content per feed input (i.e. carp and crustaceans), diverting other production flows towards direct wild fish consumption, improving byproduct utilization, and reducing waste at the retail and consumer level. We then discuss the implications of our findings by prioritizing policies and identifying demand- and supply-side interventions to realize these ambitious changes. This work emphasizes the urgency needed in managing aquatic resources towards greater utilization of resources and highlights the extent to which even partial adaptation of the measures we propose can have on narrowing the present and future nutrient gap as novel alternative sources of omega-3 become available on a larger scale.

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