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Exploring Laundry Habits in Brazil, India and the UK: How Cultural Insights Can Guide Consumer Product Use

Image credit: Jak Spencer

As businesses and brands reach out to influence consumers’ interactions with products at home, they’re missing a trick by not learning from different cultural contexts. This article shares the findings from pioneering user-centred research into laundry behaviours in Brazil, India and the UK, and offers seven guidelines for creating household products that encourage sustainable behaviours during the use phase.

Household laundry behaviours in India, Brazil and the UK

The in-depth, user-centred research focused on 19 middle-income households in Loughborough, UK; Bangalore, India; and Curitiba, Brazil. In-context interviews, observation, household tours and laundry diaries were used as a tool to understand the laundry process.

In India, 14% of urban households and 7% of rural households own a washing machine, however they are expected to see rises of up to 19% by 2015. One interesting finding was the prevalence of house help, with all of the participants studied having a maid to help with the household chores either every day, or at least once per week. Participants bought washing machines based on price, brand and energy rating, with the perceived benefits of a certain technology also important.

The energy star rating is very important, but then it should also be front-loading because that is the most water-efficient one.” (Rahul)

Indian consumers also generally associated heat with hygiene rather than cleanliness and thus only washed clothes in hot water when someone was ill.

“If anyone is not well in the house, for hygienic purposes we will use hot water, though for normal clothes it is not necessary to waste electricity on hot water.” (Preeti)

In Brazil, where nearly half of the population owns washing machines, washing in cold water was also common, however nearly all the participants aspired to wash in hot water.

I would like to have hot water because I think the clothes would be cleaner.” (Maria)

In Brazil, house help was less common than in India, with maids usually coming once a fortnight to help clean the house and perform other household chores such as the laundry. The participants had similar motivations to buying the washing machine as in India — however the washing capacity of the machine was also important; being able to wash as much as possible.

Interestingly, due to the ownership of vertical axis machines, Brazilian consumers had a better understanding of the resource implications of laundry because they had control over the water input and could visualise the waste water.

In the UK, where nearly the whole population has a washing machine, the most important factor when buying a washing machine was the price, ensuring it was the best value. In rented accommodation the end user of the washing machine was often far detached from the buying decision made by the landlord.

UK participants were likely to wash clothes at either 40°C or 60°C as this was passed down from their mothers and none had any form of house help.

That’s just what my Mum does.” (Alyson)

Guide to designing laundry-related products and services that encourage sustainable behaviours

Understanding the knowledge, motivations and abilities of consumers in new contexts not only leads to the creation of more relevant products and services, but also can reveal insights that can be used to promote sustainable behaviours during the use phase and add value to the business offering by engaging more with the user and promoting products that are exactly suited to the relevant context.

The following seven guidelines, extrapolated from the above research, suggest ways in which brands can help promote sustainable laundry behaviours:

  1. Understand the flow of the procedure from start to finish. Understand the various ‘touch points’ in the system.
  2. Behaviours very rarely have one variable. If you are designing a new laundry system, how dirty, wet and clean clothes make their way around the house, who does the laundry, and when and where they do it will all significantly affect people’s behaviour and the subsequent resource implications.

  3. Integrate the design of the procedure with the design of the spaces where the procedure occurs
  4. Behaviours happen within specific spaces and the integration of the design with the space where the behaviour occurs is critical. In India and Brazil a utility area for laundry is common, keeping the process in one place and out of the way of the rest of the house. People who didn’t have this laundry area, such as those in the UK, tended to use the tumble dryer more to avoid draping wet clothes on furniture and radiators around the home. This is of particular importance for washing machine manufacturers, particularly when introducing products to new markets.

  5. Adapt the design to suit the needs of the user
  6. In the laundry example users either washed their clothes due to time or due to senses (smell, sight, touch). Understanding the exact needs of the user will help to create products that are more relevant and engaging.

    Detergents that promote the ‘fresh’ sensory connotations may be applicable to users who wash based on smell, sight and touch, whilst detergents that promote fast action cleaning may be more appropriate for time-related users.

  7. Give the user control to influence the resource use of a process
  8. By taking all control away, the user feels they can do nothing to be environmentally conscious other than at the point of purchase — buying an ‘eco’ product. In reality, users who have control of a process and are guided towards desirable behaviours can substantially reduce their resource consumption by adapting the process to suit their specific needs.

    In Brazil, users could control the amount of water in the machine, as well as being able to add garments halfway through a wash. In this way they could directly affect the water and energy consumption of the machine, unlike in the UK where they would just push a button on the homogenous white box.

  9. Create a new emotional attachment between the user and the process
  10. Laundry will always be a chore, however there may be other factors we can design in that can encourage behaving in a certain way. In the UK, some participants opted to line-dry clothes when possible because they preferred the fresh ‘line-dry’ smell of laundry aired naturally.

  11. Let the user know and understand the various resource inputs and outputs of the process
  12. In Brazil, top-loading washing machines are installed by the user. Water is added to the machine by turning the tap on and watching the machine fill up, whilst waste water is released via the sink. Users understand the amount of water they are putting into the machine and can see the waste that is coming out, meaning they have a direct sensory feedback of the resource consumption of the machine. In the UK, machines are installed into the plumbing system of the house and the resource inputs and outputs cannot be visualised by the user.

    As an alternative example, think of Dyson vacuum cleaners that have a clear section that collects the dust, showing users how effective the product is at cleaning. 

  13. Be clear about the operation of the process. Give the correct and relevant information at the right time, in the right place.

Keeping users informed can be an effective way of reducing resource-intensive behaviours, however tread carefully: Overloading users with irrelevant and unnecessary information can be just as bad as not giving them any information at all! In all regions studied users struggled with adding detergent as they were not sure where exactly to put it or if the guidance marks for correct dosage were for powder or liquid detergents, extra concentrated detergents or other products such as conditioners or bleaches.

SB Issues in Focus For more examples of how brands can drive #BehaviorChange, check out our Issue in Focus.

Jak is a doctoral researcher in the Sustainable Design Research Group at Loughborough University looking at the effect of culture on design for sustainable behaviour.

[Read more about Jak Spencer]

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