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Water Is an Increasingly Precious Resource — But Do Consumers Understand That?

Shelton Group's 2011 "Wasting Water Is Weird" campaign featured Rip the Drip, a “weird” character that pops up whenever people start wasting water while going about their daily activities. | Image credit: Shelton Group

Has a water crisis touched you or your community this year? You probably know that 2016 was a big headline year for water, from California’s lingering drought to Flint’s public health disaster. Here in East Tennessee, where we rarely worry about the availability of fresh water, the idea of scarcity hit home this fall in an unprecedented way: We endured our most severe drought in nearly ten years, setting the stage for a massive wildfire that ripped through the tourist town of Gatlinburg and killed at least 14 people.

Still, while scary headlines draw national attention for a moment, do they resonate with the public as pieces of a broader pattern? It’s one thing for those of us with a commitment to the environment to wrap our heads around a water crisis — it’s another to get that message across to average consumers.

And of course, there are two big reasons to make consumers aware: As a community of responsible brands, we want to persuade them to use water wisely, and we want them to see value in our own efforts to do the right thing and be water-efficient.

As part of Shelton Group’s annual Eco Pulse™ study this year, we polled more than 2,000 Americans and Canadians to gauge their awareness of global and national water issues — and to see how those lined up with their purchases and behaviors (If you want to read more about our findings, you can download our full report here).

Our big takeaways:

  1. Consumers are pretty clueless about water scarcity issues. They underestimate — by a wide margin — the number of people globally who lack access to clean water (about 1 in 10). They also significantly underestimate the possibility of water shortages in their own countries, despite ongoing drought conditions in much of the United States and Canada. 71 percent said that they’d never been personally affected by a water quality or scarcity issue.
  2. They aren’t doing much at home to save water. If the perception is that water is never scarce, and the reality is that it’s artificially cheap, we obviously face a steep uphill battle to get people to use less. Want evidence of that? I’ll offer up consumers’ paltry record of water-conservation efforts at home. The only activity that a majority of consumers claimed to have undertaken was running only full loads of laundry (53 percent). The activities that might make the biggest difference had low adoption rates: installing a water-efficient toilet (25 percent) and buying an ENERGY STAR clothes washer (28 percent).
  3. Awareness of their personal water usage is low. Americans and Canadians are big water users relative to the rest of the globe, but they don’t know it. They underestimated how many gallons they use during routine activities; only 3 percent were in the correct ballpark of 100 gallons per person per day.
  4. Despite this, 61 percent say they’d like to use less. Since consumers haven’t made much of an effort thus far, big gains stand to be made. And despite their lack of depth on water quality and scarcity issues — and the fact that most of them are paying low water bills that don’t reflect the true cost of cleaning and delivering potable water — a strong majority of consumers still say they’d like to use less water. We think it’s tied to a general aversion to waste, which we see every year in our Pulse research.
  5. Consumers are willing to pull together as a community to save water. We tested different types of messaging that might move consumers to take action, and altruistic options fell far behind personal benefits (such as savings or an appeal to “smart” behavior that strokes the ego). But when we dug a little deeper, asking questions about whether California did the right thing by issuing a conservation mandate during its water crisis (88 percent said yes) and whether it was the right thing to do to reduce water use during a drought (75 percent said yes), we saw strong prosocial sentiment that belied their messaging preferences.
  6. By the way: Don’t count on Millennials to be water-responsible. They have a reputation for supporting environmental causes, but this generation falls way behind its peers in terms of water conservation. They make up the largest group of home buyers, but they were less likely than others to expect water-efficient features in those homes. And the prosocial sentiment we mentioned above? It was noticeably less pronounced in Millennials — only 62 percent thought they should reduce their water use during a drought (vs. 75 percent of the total population). This group may need a larger, more targeted push to get moving in the right direction.
  7. Consumers do appear to place some value on corporate water conservation. We presented respondents with a list of eight different sustainability initiatives for each of three hypothetical companies (a laptop manufacturer, a beverage maker, and a maker of sinks, tubs and toilets). One of those activities was related to saving water. We asked respondents to rank the initiatives in order of importance and found that water consistently did well, but most clearly for the company with the water-centric focus (beverages). We think that consumers not only hate waste, but they love the idea of companies being responsible for saving water — mainly so they don’t have to do it themselves. This point may be helpful as you’re crafting your organization’s water-efficiency story.

We think it’s high time for smart education on this issue — done in a way that taps underlying emotional drivers that make water conservation feel real, personal, and self-affirming. The water crisis isn’t going away anytime soon. To deal with it effectively, you need to get consumers on board.


Suzanne Shelton is CEO of Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications firm entirely focused in the sustainability and energy efficiency sectors. The company polls Americans on an ongoing basis to understand their drivers and obstacles to adopting more sustainable… [Read more about Suzanne Shelton]


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