How to get ‘generation snooze’ to use fewer resources

This is a guest post by Sarah Griffith, senior researcher at Brook Lyndhurst

To use our resources more sustainably, do we ‘just need to wake up’? This is the suggestion from Generation Awake, an EU campaign fronted by three singing shopping bags, which was launched last month with the aim of making “resource efficiency a habit.” It is one of numerous initiatives and events around ‘resource efficiency’ that tie in with the European Week for Waste Reduction (19th – 27th November): WWF held a conference on the topic in October ; the European Commission has adopted a Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe; and my colleagues are speaking at the Resource Recovery Forum’s “Influencing Resourceful Behaviours” conference on 23rd November.

It was Generation Awake, however, that gave me most pause for thought. At the campaign launch, European Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik is reported as saying:
“With our economy in difficulty and our resources dwindling, it’s time to start rethinking some of our habits. Using resources more carefully not only helps protect the environment, but saves money and reduces business costs. It’s about using less to do more. Everyone can do their bit. We just need to wake up!”

Roll over and go back to sleep
Really? Surely if it were that easy we’d have solved our environmental problems long ago. Isn’t the point that we already know “we need to wake up”, but that we don’t want to? We just keep rolling over, pressing snooze and nodding back off.

Perhaps I’m an old cynic, and maybe Commissioner Janez Potočnik is right, and the campaign’s message to ‘consume differently, and think before you choose’, will bring about a consumer-led revolution that transforms our environmentally damaging shopping habits into something sustainable.

However, the work that Brook Lyndhurst and others have been doing on consumer attitudes and behaviours as they relate to the environment, suggests that campaigns like this are highly unlikely to provide the breakthrough suggested in their hopeful strap lines.

Whatever the nuances of the debates around ‘marketing’ the environment to consumers, this much is clear: most of us are not sufficiently motivated by environmental issues that we’d be prepared to put our money where our mouths are and to ‘consume differently’.

So where is there left to go? Predictably, that is less clear, but it seems sensible to take an approach that starts from what we know about consumers and consumption, rather than what we’d like to believe. This was the premise behind work recently completed by Brook Lyndhurst for Defra that looked in depth at how consumers decide to purchase, use, reuse and dispose of household products. The results provide a wealth of information about the language, attitudes and behaviours that influence our relationships with the things we buy.

The reports’ conclusions suggest a range of possible policy responses that could help us all to use resources more efficiently. However, it acknowledges that this is an issue that will require an enormous effort and fundamental change on all our parts and is not something that is likely to be solved, even in some small way, by inciting people to ‘consume differently’.

Helping consumers use fewer resources
In particular the findings confirmed that the attraction of cheap, new products was usually far more important than any inclination people may have to make do and mend and to hang onto their products for longer. Bearing this important point in mind, the report includes detailed ideas on how best to engage with consumers on the issue of resource efficiency. These are underpinned by several key conclusions:

  • Help consumers to reduce the risk of making the wrong choice – Provide them with clearer and more certain means for judging the expected lifetimes of products (both new and second hand) and feasible repairs.
  • Focus on value and perceived value – Longer life products have to offer consumers clear and apparent value when compared with shorter life, possibly cheaper alternatives.
  • Improve service performance to help keep products in use – This potentially includes innovations in product service systems, as well as improvements to warranties/guarantees and repair and reuse services.
  • Build on positive norms and attitudes that are already apparent – Themes emerged around: the ‘wrongness’ of waste; the ‘feel-good’, pro-social aspects of giving unwanted products a new home; and the ‘cool’, ‘alternative’  or ‘creative’ image that some reuse activities have. These could all provide a realistic basis for more effective engagement with consumers on the issue of resource efficiency.

Brook Lyndhurst’s reports on the ‘Public understanding of product lifetimes’  are available to download from the Defra website. The findings from the reports will be presented at the Resource Recovery Forum’s “Influencing Resourceful Behaviours” conference on 23rd November 2011.

3 comments

  • Intriguing though the psychology of consumer behaviour is (and I could read and chat about it all day) the recommendations in the second part of this article are unlikely to be very much more successful than the broad brush campaigns mentioned in the first part. Widespread change almost always needs either regulation, or price signals (usually brought about by regulation). Our current economic model means that it is generally cheap and convenient to throw away (no marginal charge to the consumer) and buy new (on the back of low wages in China, relatively cheap energy and materials) than it is to repair (requires skilled or semi-skilled labour locally). We need to change market fundamentals, and consumer attitudes will follow.

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