How free fruit can encourage people to climate-proof their homes

This is a guest post by Erik Bichard, Professor of Regeneration and Sustainable Development at the University of Salford.

The press release announcing the launch of the Green Deal in September last year contained an astonishing statement. It said that every one of the UK’s 26 million homes could benefit in some way from improvements to insulations, lighting, space and water heating, ventilation, and microgenenration. After decades of government efforts exhorting householders to take action, it appears that virtually none had taken the advice and finished the job.

As a statement of a potential market capacity this is impressive, but if the government expects to realise even a small portion of this in terms of take-up it may be disappointed unless it adopts lessons from behavioural studies.

Perceptions vs reality
Consider the following statistics; an authority in Greater Manchester has just completed a housing stock survey that revealed that less than 28% of loft spaces have more than 100m of insulation, yet doorstep surveys in the same area showed that 48% said they thought that they already had adequate loft insulation. Among owner-occupiers in England and Wales 75% think their homes are well enough insulated, yet DECC estimate that only 50% have insulation that is thicker than 125mm. The recommended thickness is 270mm.

And it not just energy that householders think they know about. Over three quarters of people living in a high risk flood zone are aware of this fact, yet the great majority do not think it’s likely that their home will be affected by flooding.

Clearly, the architects of policy strategies that seek to motivate householders to insulate their homes, or protect them from flood waters, have a serious challenge on their hands which is unlikely to be tackled by some friendly information campaign or even an auditor’s report and the offer of some up-front financing.

Incentives, norms and targeted info
One idea being tested by my team at Salford University is that people can be encouraged to overcome their natural reticence by combining three components.

These are: an attractive incentive to circumvent the high barrier of disbelief and the perception of difficulty; evidence that others are already active in their area (the norm-based influences), and information and assistance at just the right point in the decision-making process. This strategy is based on the well-trodden path of the Theory of Reasoned Action, which offers a good set of building blocks for campaign strategists.

The trial
After carrying out a comprehensive attitudinal survey, the Salford team conducted a trial in a western district of Greater Manchester which was flood-threatened, did not have an organised green community group, and was likely to produce sufficient numbers of owner-occupiers with enough disposable income to participate.

The trial was designed in three parts. First, residents were visited by a green community group acting on behalf of the researchers who tested householders’ attitudes toward climate change, attribution of responsibility, and interest in investing in property-level measures in return for some non-cash rewards.

Residents who expressed interest in the reward scheme were given a combined flood and energy survey of their home. The residents were then invited to purchase some or all of the recommended measures in return for rewards such as vouchers for fruit and vegetables, free meals at a local restaurant, free furniture and garden makeovers, valued at the same amount as their expenditure.

The core attractor for residents was the incentives. Each reward had an intrinsic sustainable value and some were linked to public policy initiatives – for example using offender rehabilitation schemes for the labour on the furniture and garden makeovers.

The trial involved a small sample of 50 homes to prove the concept was viable and so was never expected to produce large numbers of converts. However, it produced some interesting and unexpected results. Half of the householders agreed to a full energy and flood audit. This is far higher than one energy company achieved after offering to provide this for free to their own customer base.

Triple bottom line
The residents who accepted the rewards chose fruit and vegetables, a season ticket for the tram, a garden makeover and a beauty session in return for buying items including a new boiler, space heaters and insulation. About 20% of those householders who accepted the home surveys went on to make a purchase and were eligible for the rewards. The average spend by the residents was just over £1,000 while the cash value of the rewards was £840 showing that it is possible to motivate reluctant householders, promote social value initiatives, lower carbon emissions and provide measures at less than market prices for the material and the labour all at the same time. The team is now speaking to a number of energy providers and other interested parties about extending this work.

There are clear implications for policy-makers from this research. It suggests that it is possible to move householders from good intentions to sustainable actions if strategies that follow the grain of human behaviour are employed.

The work also highlighted some interesting findings that were less expected.  One was that the possibility of a reward greatly improved the number of invitations to survey houses. Another was that motivating investment in flood protection and energy conservation will each require very different behavioural tactics, because most people do not believe that flooding is a credible threat their home. It may be that householders in flood zones first need to be given a more a tangible sense of the risk they face. This could be done by using imagery or by calling meetings with householders from other areas who can explain what it is like to be flooded.

Community groups
Finally, the recognition that investment in community influencers is important is once again underlined by this work, reinforcing many others who have come to the same conclusion. If budgets for these critical workers are not included in future energy conservation programmes (including the Green Deal) and flood protection schemes then the likelihood of significant numbers of householders responding to these campaigns will surely be diminished.

Further information, and an e-copy of the report can be obtain by sending a request to e.bichard[at]salford.ac.uk

About Green Alliance blog

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.
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