Creating a simple sustainability score for consumers would make it easy to be green.
By Guy Champniss
Sustainable behavior is a challenge for most businesses.
Even those that are ploughing through their own operations in order to eke out every possible resource and energy saving still face a Herculean task to become anything like a “sustainable business.” But one thing is certain: for businesses to get closer to this goal, they now need to look beyond their own factory gates and supply chain, and think how on earth to engage customers and consumers in more sustainable behavior.
Just when we thought we were getting to grips with the supply chain, now the whole “demand chain” stands in front of us too.
Sustainability & Consumers: Lessons Learned So Far
When it comes to engaging consumers, it’s fair to say we’ve learned two lessons.
First, allowing people to feel proud of their purchasing decisions on sustainability grounds (even when the decision may not have been made on those criteria) seems to be a good way to modify attitudes and subsequent behaviors in favor of further sustainable choices.
Second, we know the overt sustainability message will probably only resonate with a proportion of your target, and may not even resonate at all if it crosses the line and enters parts of their lives considered somehow sacrosanct. Tim Smit from the U.K.’s Eden Project sums it up perfectly:
“For most of us (sustainability) is all well and good, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of a cold beer and a warm shower.”
Communicating the Real Benefits of Sustainability To Consumers
So how do we get past this issue?
Even the argument of attaching personal benefits to more sustainable products and services falls short here, as these benefits would be poor compensation for what’s been given up. But could it be that there are other benefits we could communicate? Tangible benefits that have always been there, but just not really communicated?
Total Cost of Ownership
For example, what about the total cost of ownership? By that, I mean not just the purchase price, but the running costs too. So for everything in your house that has a plug at one end, that’s the cost of electrical energy to power the thing.
For sure, total cost of ownership has been looked at before by manufacturers and consumer alliances, but for some reason the concept has never really stuck.
Well, for one thing, it doesn’t make for pleasant reading: a $400 TV set magics into a $2,000 TV set (over five years); a $1000 fridge freezer suddenly stands in front of you as a $4,500 commitment. Would you buy a $4,500 fridge-freezer? Me neither.
And of course these (big) numbers can only ever be estimates: they don’t take into consideration how much you’re going to use the thing, nor what you pay for power. They are big, clunky numbers, most likely pretty irrelevant to your particular circumstances.
A Product Efficiency Score Light on Cognitive Load
But what about a cleaner “efficiency score” for those products? One that accurately reports the efficiency for that product, irrespective of usage or energy supplier?
Suddenly this becomes less hideous to stare at, and immediately more applicable. It would take away most of what the consumer behavior crowd call “cognitive load” required by consumers during their decision journey to buy a new TV or fridge-freezer.
Why? Because no matter how often you use it, or who you buy your power from (and more and more of us now have a choice), you immediately know if it’s a good deal down the line. That’s not to say you can’t then go and find out exactly what it’s going to cost you (by applying it to your own usage estimates and the power prices), but at least you don’t have to do this off the bat.
A Personal Efficiency Score To Tweet About
What’s more, if an “efficiency” label were attached to the majority of products we have using power around us, we could then establish our own personal efficiency score. Could such a score become one of the defining qualities we share online? Maybe so -- who wouldn’t want to brag about having a light touch on the earth when it comes to energy use (ardent environmentalist or not)?
Which takes us back to the lessons we already know about consumer engagement. Your own efficiency score plays directly into the social labeling technique already used so effectively in some areas of sustainable behavior (Toyota Prius, anyone?).
But what about the cold beer and the warm shower issue? Are we closer to navigating this issue?
For one, you’d have a clear idea of what it costs to have that cold beer and warm shower. And second, by embracing the efficiency argument, you’d be doing your bit to make sure others could also have cold beers and warm showers, for years to come. Surely that has to be a step in the right direction?