Sustainable behavior is a challenge for most businesses. The scope of what needs to be done seems to constantly increase, and the target seems to be moving ever faster. One thing is clear though: businesses need to look beyond their own operations and supply chain, and find ways to engage their “demand chain” of customers and consumers.
When it comes to consumers, at least two lessons are now pretty well understood. First, allowing people to feel proud of their purchasing decisions on sustainability grounds (even when the decision may not have been made on those criteria) seems to be a good way to modify attitudes and subsequent behaviors in favor of subsequent sustainable choices. Second, we know the overt sustainability message will probably only resonate with a small proportion of your target, and it may not even resonate at all as soon as it crosses the line and enters parts of their lives considered somehow sacrosanct. Tim Smit from the UK’s Eden Project summed it up perfectly: “For most of us (sustainability) is all well and good, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of a cold beer and a warm shower.”
So how do we get past this issue? Even the argument of attaching personal benefits to more sustainable products and services falls short here, as these benefits would be poor compensation for what’s been given up. But could it be that there are other benefits we could communicate? Tangible benefits that have always been there, but just not really communicated?
For example, what about the total cost of ownership? By that, I mean not just the purchase price, but the running costs too. So for everything in your house that has a plug at one end, that’s the electrical energy costs to power the thing. Total cost of ownership has indeed been looked at before by manufacturers and consumer alliances, but for some reason the concept has never really stuck. Why? Well, for one thing, it may not make for pleasant reading: a $400 TV set magics into a $2000 TV set (over five years); a $1000 fridge freezer suddenly stands in front of you as a $4500 commitment. Would you buy a $4500 fridge-freezer? Me neither. And of course these (big) numbers can only ever be estimates: they don’t take into consideration how much you’re going to use the thing, nor what you pay for power. They are big, clunky numbers, most likely pretty irrelevant to your particular circumstances (having spent time working it out).
What about a cleaner “efficiency score” for those products? A score that accurately reports the efficiency for that product, irrespective of usage or energy supplier? Suddenly this becomes less hideous to stare at, and immediately more applicable. It would take away most of what the consumer behavior crowd call the “cognitive load” required by consumers during their decision journey to buy a new TV or fridge-freezer. Why? Because no matter how often you use it, or who you buy your power from (and more and more of us now have a choice), you immediately know if it’s a good deal down the line. That’s not to say you can’t then go and find out exactly what it’s going to cost you (by applying it to your own usage estimates and the power prices), but at least you don’t have to do this off the bat.
And what about those who are paid to accept this “cognitive load” when it comes to purchasing decisions in a more professional context: the procurement department? Surely a more effective way to ensure efficient purchasing (now and down the line) would be welcome?
Such an approach should also be broadly welcomed by the manufacturers. Why? Because, from preliminary research, it looks as if the higher ticket models in most product lines are often the most energy efficient (thanks to premium components). Leading with two numbers – purchase price and efficiency score – could present a novel way for manufacturers and retailers to promote premium models.
Back in a consumer context, if an “efficiency” label were attached to the majority of products we have using power around us, we could then establish our own personal efficiency score. Could such a score become one of the defining qualities we share online? Maybe so – who wouldn’t want to brag about having a light touch on the earth when it comes to energy use (ardent environmentalist or not)?
Which takes us back to the lessons we already know about consumer engagement. Your own efficiency score plays directly into the social labeling technique already used so effectively in some areas of sustainable behavior.
But what about the cold beer and the warm shower issue? Well, for one, you’d have a clearer idea of what it costs to have cold beers and warm showers. And second, by embracing the efficiency argument, you’d be doing your bit to make sure others could also have cold beers and warm showers, for years to come. But whether procurement would accept cold beers as justifiable expenditure, is another issue.
Guy Champniss is a London-based consultant, researcher and author on sustainability and pro-social consumer behavior, as well as a strategic adviser to the US-based consumer energy efficiency initiative www.enervee.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org