Sweeten the sustainability pill
An illustration of the environmental limits on consumption and the need to change behaviour is the anticipated hosepipe ban due to be enforced this spring and summer in much of southern and eastern England, an area in the midst of a long-term drought. Water companies are keenly aware of the need to conserve resources and cut consumption. A hosepipe ban involves a mandatory behavioural change, but water companies are taking many steps to persuade people to reduce their water use voluntarily.
John Clare, media manager at Anglian Water, the utility covering much of central and eastern England, says that “demand management really does work,” and should be preferred over high-cost engineering schemes to keep the water flowing. For British water companies, the switch from flat-rate charging to water metering is key, because households with meters use on average 15 percent less water, Clare says.
Demand management in Anglian Water’s area means that although the population has increased by a fifth in two decades, the volume of water supplied has not changed. Anglian Water runs the Love every drop campaign to encourage water conservation. Part of this is the offer of water savings kits to households, including various converters and widgets that reduce water consumed though toilets, showers and taps. This is promoted through standard advertising channels and requires consumers to apply for the free kit. In common with the Turn to 30 campaign, the emphasis is not on sustainability, but on saving money.
“Customers say they like, and are more likely to respond to, communications which contain simple messages, that tell them what we are doing and that make it easy for them to take action,” Clare says. “Generally, people understand the issues and the need for action. They tell us they like the partnership approach – they want to see that we are doing our bit too.”
In the vanguard
In Anglian Water’s case, the company’s interest in changing its consumers’ behaviour is clear. But another water conservation effort, a campaign by Unilever to get people to spend less time in the shower, seems to stretch the notion of a company’s responsibility for its products. People shower using Unilever brands, but what connection does this have with the amount of water they use?
As a basis for action, Unilever carried out a study using sensors in showers. It found for example that the average shower lasts for eight minutes, while eight-minute power showers use twice as much energy and water as a bath. Many people also shower in water that is hotter than necessary.
Unilever says it will use the findings to encourage shorter showers, or use of low-flow shower heads, but has not yet come forward with a detailed plan for changing the behaviour of consumers. The company adds that its researchers will “use the insights to design new products and other solutions to help consumers save money by conserving energy and water.”
Corporate Culture’s Long says the main reason for companies taking such action is “creating sustainable markets for themselves and being the lead brand in that market.” Her view is echoed by Peter White of P&G, in relation to its cold-water washing goal. “If we are the company that provides the best low-temperature wash, we will stay ahead of the market,” he says.
White adds another point about behavioural change that could be taken into account by campaigners and policymakers, whose messages about issues such as climate change are often gloomy and emphasise potentially highly disruptive future change. Messages about sustainability should not be “about frightening people,” he says, because they “tend to shut off.”
Instead, behavioural change requires a “positive vision of where you are headed to,” focused on quality of life. “It’s much easier to get people to change if they want to,” White says. “People are prepared to make changes but if you make it easy for them, they will make bigger changes and make them faster.”
Behaviour changes when everyone's a winner
If you want to learn more about how companies can change consumer behaviour for the good, then join us on June 28-29th in London for the Responsible Business Summit, New York.
image: sparktography via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)