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Why Water-Saving Advice Won’t Work

The ShowerSaver — a handy, little device that alerts users to their water usage while showering, which apparently the author will not be buying — is a great idea nonetheless. Contribute to the ShowerSaver Kickstarter campaign to get one. | Image credit: GreenStartsHere

To the tune of Dolly Parton’s "Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman," I hear myself humming, "Sometimes It’s hard to be a sustainability person… giving all our love to just one plan."

That plan — to educate, to warn, to inform, ergo ‘get people to use less water’  is more than ambitious (especially in the UK). It is unproductively naive, unless we get behaviour change expertise involved at the front, middle and centre of our work. Here is why …

Water, as part of our lovely energy-food-water nexus, is a poor, younger and left-out cousin. Ed Davey is not fighting with Labour or the suppliers about the price of water bills and the Daily Mail are not outraged by ‘water poverty, the likes of which the nation has never seen before.’ In fact, if you read Wednesday’s Metro, it is plain to even the untrained eye that our problem is not water scarcity. No, there is a picture of a map of Britain and London, under the heading "Global Warming," about to flood! So, it is not unreasonable to ask why anyone would be considering water-saving advice, on pack, in store, online, etc.  This is (pardon the pun) fighting the rising tide of public dissonance.

Think about some of the options in deployment right now: water-saving advice delivered by your local DIY store when you buy a bathroom?

Firstly, this requires that the average zero-hours contractor in my local DIY store can even tell me where (or what) the taps are, never mind help me understand the finer points of water savings, or indeed why I would care on a wet and windy Wednesday at a Watford retail park.

The young chap who just last week could not tell me the difference between matte and gloss paint is now, somehow, explaining to me why it's important that I buy shower X because it has an alarm that goes off at three minutes telling me to get out of the shower because I'm wasting precious water. This is to me — a bemused mother of 5 whose only ‘alone time’ is in that shower. She is in the store wanting the cheapest shower because she has mouths to feed and needs to buy all of her children and nieces those new pink, knitted fake UGG boots for Christmas. To add to the context (and context is a key determinant of behaviour) — it is half term, it is raining buckets outside and has been all week (she knows because the rain just put her fag out) ... and “by the way,” she says to the chap with his water-saving brochure proudly clutched in his newly trained, outstretched arms, “do you know how expensive cigarettes are these days?” The slightly scared chap in his starched apron wonders only briefly if he should mention the smoke alarms to the lady with the nicotine-stained finger who is now yelling, “all I want is a cheap shower.”

 Vicky Grinnell Wright will examine reprogramming fundamental units of culture during a panel discussion at next week's SB London Conference — November 18-19.

Anyway, shower/loo/bath now bought in enlightened water-saving mindfulness; the item gets delivered and indeed fitted. Now it is time for the water-saving advice and information pack to really do its job. Let’s say it is stuck on my toilet, which I buy because it seems to do the same job as other toilets, it looks as good as the other toilets and is as cheap as the other toilets but with a ‘low-flo’ option (whatever that is)  Once I get it home there is a lot of responsibility on that label, bless it. Now it is at home with me as my sole advisor on the plight of the planet, which rests on my actions, it needs to find a way to make me like it enough to stay on my toilet in my shiny new and uber-stylish, white-only bathroom aka parlour of escapism, tranquillity and dreaming (as marketed to me by Radox, rather than my real-world experience). I will want to slip into cognitive dissonance beneath the steaming hot and lavender-scented bubbles and that label will need to grow arms, grab me by the throat and threaten to drown me if I put one drop more than covers my nether regions into that bath...or, it will need to caress and coax me out and into a place where saving water feels as soothing and wonderful as the long, hot bath promised to be.

This water-saving example is just one of many, which should tell us why all of our ‘sustainable living ambitions’ and desires to work at a consumer behaviour change level might want to start by making sure that we are answering all three of the following questions:

1) Have we found a problem? (Oh, yes we have… water, energy and food shortages, waste and emissions galore)

2) Have we a potential solution? (Yes  most likely a footprint, label or awareness campaign, and choice editing is of course an option).

But #3 — the one that is needed for transformative-scale, whammy impact:

3) Are we solving a problem that most normal people care about or can find some kind of immediate and personal benefit from solving?... ahh... er.... well.... um....

Here is the fact: People don’t think as much as we think they think. Read Thinking Fast and Slow if you need proof of this. So, if they are not thinking, they are feeling and experiencing and living and we need to meet them where they are at if we are to engage, inspire and motivate change at a populist and transformative scale. That is our job. Don’t tell me — listen, understand me, find my motivator and stop selling me your dreams and your advice, which is just plain fringe and likely to have the longevity of toilet paper in a household with 2.5 children. This is how we might #createrealworldchange

Vicky Grinnell-Wright is founder and director of Eight Plates Consulting, which offers transition coaching, business and personal mentorship, and corporate behaviour and change strategy. Vicky's work centres around helping organisations, individuals, and brands move towards better and future-proofed business or… [Read more about Vicky Grinnell-Wright]

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