Leaving the computer on all day and night, running half loads of laundry through the dryer, air conditioning an empty house. All of these energy-wasting activities happening everyday in millions of households carry an environmental price tag. If consumers better understood the connection between their energy-wasting habits at home and climate change, would that be enough to motivate new behaviour? The short answer is no.
Along with transportation, household electricity use constitutes an individual’s greatest contribution to carbon emissions. When power plants burn fossil fuels to generate electricity, greenhouse gases are released. By using less energy at home, consumers will not only be saving money, they’ll also be reducing their personal contribution of carbon emissions.
Yet, as concerned as consumers might be about climate change, changing entrenched behaviours is never easy. Consumer behaviour is shaped by a complex set of factors –and energy use around the home is no exception.
First, people don’t simply consume energy, as noted by a 2007 Sussex Energy Group report. Instead, people consume the services that energy provides for in their homes: refrigerating food, powering televisions, lighting rooms, vacuuming floors. The energy itself is invisible but it enables a range of household activities, all of which come with a host of established routines attached. Some of these activities are so repetitive they’re automatic, like flicking on a light switch when entering a room.
As the report points out, household energy behaviour is difficult to alter because it’s shaped by a variety of external and internal factors: values, beliefs and attitudes; the social norms established by family, friends and the cultural environment; and economic constraints and incentives.
The task of changing consumer energy behavior is made all the more challenging by the proliferation of new appliances and personal devices. In fact, the World Energy Council links the rise of the Internet and new telecommunications devices with the increase in household energy consumption in North America and Europe since 2000.
And yet, despite the barriers thrown up by established behaviors and appliance-intensive lifestyles, changing consumers’ energy usage at home is both possible and necessary.
The Sussex Energy Group report outlines best practices for encouraging energy conservation. First, consumers tend to value energy-efficient measures that carry personal benefits like saving money; preventing climate change is a worthy cause but not sufficiently motivating. Consumers are also more likely to change their behavior if they have relevant information at hand, ideally personalized and outlining clear goals and benefits. They are also more likely to retain their new behaviour if the commitment to change is made publically and if friends and neighbours join in.
Here social marketing – identifying and overcoming the consumer’s barriers to socially positive behavior – has an essential role to play. A 2009 report by Canada’s National Energy Board, “Attitude and Behaviour: Shaping Energy Use,” argues for pairing traditional advertising techniques with the power of peer pressure. The consumer learns about the personal benefits attached to energy conservation but also get the message about being part of a social movement.
While saving the planet might not be incentive enough, certainly staying within the bounds of social norms can be a powerful motivator.