Hard choices (BEHAVE 2014 Blog Series, 2/4)

This blog is the second in our series of blogs in the lead up to the 2014 BEHAVE conference. Like the first blog, we’re delving into some of the results of a survey we ran a few months ago that gauged consumer attitudes towards a range of environmental and lifestyle issues.

In our survey we asked:

‘How often do you personally buy the most environmentally friendly option when you go shopping?’

The choice of words in the question was quite deliberate. In research we conducted a few years ago for Defra we established that, in terms of making a justifiable claim about a product, businesses should avoid the phrase ‘environmentally friendly’: it has no precise meaning, so it is difficult to verify. In the same research, however, we discovered that it is a phrase that the general public – perplexed by the technicalities of ‘low carbon’ and ‘zero waste’ and ‘bio-diversity’ – like very much.

It is easy for people answering surveys to ‘overclaim’ in responses to such questions, yet only one in twenty respondents in our survey claimed to make such a choice all of the time. In fact, just over half admitted that they only occasionally or hardly ever buy the most environmentally friendly option when shopping.

GN chart 3

It is well known, and obvious, that factors such as price, quality and convenience invariably loom largest in the minds of citizens when they make their consumption choices. The ‘environment’ is often a peripheral factor, something that – as we suggested in recent work for the Fairtrade Foundation – enables the typical consumer, as their make their occasionally or hardly ever choice, to get a reassuring ethical glow.

Nevertheless, most people know or believe the environment to be important. So, are there other reasons why shopping choices are so rarely influenced by environmental concerns?

One possible influence on people’s choices is whether or not they think it makes any difference to the environment. Our survey results point to a complex picture:

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 14.24.11

Recycling is considered by close to 90% of respondents to make some or a lot of difference to the environment; and there would seem to be a neat fit with the high proportion of people claiming to recycle. People would probably be less willing to make the effort to recycle if they thought it was a waste of time, after all. Recycling rates across the UK have increased dramatically over the last couple of decades. Not only is it now much easier to recycle, with widespread kerbside recycling infrastructure, but people’s awareness and norms have also been successfully influenced.

Making environmentally friendly choices when shopping is some way below recycling in terms of perceived impact, with only two-thirds of respondents considering this to make some or a lot of difference to the environment. Clearly, if more people were choosing environmentally products regularly it would have a profound impact on the environment, but this appears to be less well recognised.

Communicating the benefits of shopping choices is perhaps more tricky than communicating the benefits of recycling. Supply chains are often complex and opaque, and even ‘deep greens’ can be unsure of the relative merits of organic, seasonal, local, Fairtrade…

Shopping choices therefore remain hard choices. Citizens already have to balance economic, convenience and nutrition issues. A complex and poorly understood environmental dimension is understandably a lower priority. The survey results suggest that if the impacts of these purchasing decisions were better communicated and understood, consumers might be more inclined to give further consideration to these choices.

[Fieldwork was conducted on-line in September 2013 with a representative sample of 1,000 GB adults by GfK]

Just can’t get enough? (BEHAVE 2014 Blog Series, 1/4)

 

To kick off the season of mellow fruitfulness, David Fell and Geoff King will next week be at the Said Business School in Oxford to join delegates from around the world at the 2014 BEHAVE conference.

The theme of the conference is “Paradigm Shift: From Energy Efficiency to Energy Reduction through Social Change”.  To get ourselves into the mood, we’ve been looking again at the results of a survey we ran a few months ago to gauge consumer attitudes towards a range of environmental and lifestyle issues.

One of the questions we asked was a reprise of a question we first asked a decade earlier for our publication ‘Bad Habits, Hard Choices’, when we asked:

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the statement

“I own more possessions than I really need”?

Comparing the results from 2004 with our most recent survey findings, we can see a marked fall in the proportion of the population that strongly agreed with the statement.

GN graph 1

It seems highly likely that the effects of the 2008 financial collapse – particularly the long period of stable or even declining incomes – will lie behind this shift; but it is still striking that 44% of our respondents agree that they own more ‘stuff’ than they really need.

We also asked a new question, directly about incomes, inviting people to indicate which of the following statements came closest to their view:

  • My household income would need to be much higher than it is now in order for me to live a comfortable life
  • My household income need to be slightly higher than it is now in order for me to live a comfortable life
  • My household income is already enough for me to live a comfortable life
  • If my household income was a little lower than it is now I would still be able to live a comfortable life

The results are intriguing, with respondents evenly split between three main answers, as the pie chart shows:

GN graph 2

Is the glass half full or half empty?  A third of the population is either poor or acquisitive and wants much more money?  A third of the population admit in a survey that they don’t really need any more money?  Two thirds are either already comfortable or would need only a little more money to be comfortable: what does this say about the need for rapid economic growth?

Needless to say, we’re still thinking about what it all means.  In the meantime, over the next few days we’ll be posting some other findings which we hope will give us all food for thought.

[Fieldwork was conducted on-line in September 2013 with a representative sample of 1,000 GB adults by GfK]

Food waste in restaurants: out of home, out of mind?

This blog was originally written by Brook Lyndhurst for The Guardian Sustainable Business portal. It can be found in its original location here: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/food-waste-eating-out-restaurants

potato chip on fork

In a recent survey most people identified chips as the food they left uneaten and many saw salad garnishes as purely ornamental Photograph: Alamy

Q. How many people leave food at the end of a ‘meal out’?
A. 27%

Research (pdf) we did for WRAP last year revealed that more than a quarter of respondents left food the last time they ate out. When asked generally about whether they were concerned about leaving food, close to three fifths said they were not concerned.

UK pubs, restaurants, take-aways and hotels generate 600,000 tonnes of food waste. While some of this is made up of things like peelings and bones, the majority is perfectly good food – and it’s estimated that a third (pdf) of it comes from diners.

Avoidable out of home food waste costs more than £720m a year. Combined with the 4.2m tonnes of household food and drink thrown away annually – the equivalent of six meals every week for the average UK household – at a cost of £12.5bn (pdf), the financial cost of food waste is substantial. The environmental impact is significant too – the lack of oxygen in landfill causes food to break down anaerobically producing methane a greenhouse gas considerably more potent than CO2.

Efforts to influence people’s eating-out behaviour need to be carefully composed, to reflect our complex relationships with food. Many people eat out of the home as a treat, and don’t want to feel guilty about what they’re eating or leaving. Some 59% of people surveyed agreed with the statement ‘I don’t want to have to think about leaving food when I eat out’. So providing information in restaurants and pubs about food waste is unlikely to be effective or appealing.

Q. Which food do you think is most often left uneaten?
A. Chips

Of the 27% who claimed to leave food, 32% said they left chips. Food considered as plate fillers like chips, vegetables, and salad are most likely to remain uneaten. Some also thought of salad garnishes as ornamental, rather than something to eat.

Food waste graph

Most commonly left food items when eating ‘out of home’. Brook Lyndhurst for WRAP (2013) Photograph: www.istockphoto.com

Q. What is the main reason people leave food when eating out?
A. 41% said portions are too big.

This was the most popular reason for leaving food. However, the reason for leaving food is more complex with a mix of habits, values and social norms all at play:

• If eating more than one course, people will often leave part of their main dish and accompanying sides so they can eat a starter or pudding.
• People who said that they were eating out for the experience as opposed to “refueling” were more likely to leave food.
• There is also the possibility that some people just value food less than others. Those who left food when eating out were also more likely to leave food cooked at home.
• Who we eat meals with also has an influence. Nearly a quarter of respondents agreed with the statement: “When eating out, how much I eat depends on who I’m with” and some participants spoke of not wanting to appear greedy.

Working towards clean plates

What can be done to make sure customers remain satisfied, but less food ends up being wasted? Action is well underway in the food and hospitality sector, with dozens of organisations signed up to WRAP’s voluntary agreement to reduce waste. Last year Unilever also launched an app facilitating food businesses to look at food waste generation. By identifying what kinds of food are being wasted, and why, businesses can adapt their processes.

Greater menu flexibility may also help to tackle those wasted chips and vegetables. Making it evident that requests for food customisation are encouraged (eg swapping chips for mashed potato, or salad for vegetables) ensures customers are less likely to receive items they won’t finish.

Offering different portions sizes is another option, as some businesses already do by providing light or starter sized versions of main courses. Customers naturally expect to pay less, 83% liked the idea of a cheaper, smaller menu option.

What about the good old doggy bag? Well, though 42% of people agreed with the statement ‘asking for a container to take leftovers home is embarrassing’, there was still enthusiasm for venues to proactively offer doggy bags for taking away leftover food. 74% of respondents were in favour of being offered doggy bags, and the Sustainable Restaurant Association has championed this option as part of their Too Good to Waste campaign.

By addressing the provision and communication of different portion sizes, both technically with industry and behaviourally with staff and customers, we can achieve cleaner plates at the end of a meal out.

Waste prevention 2014

On Tuesday I spoke at the Westminster Forum event entitled: “Reducing and managing waste: implementing the Waste Prevention Programme and moving towards a ‘zero waste’ economy”.

With five minutes to speak, I thought I’d say five things. I decided to make my remarks from a demand side perspective, drawing on a mix of Brook Lyndhurst’s back catalogue of research in this area and my own heterodox meanderings.

1.     ‘Waste prevention’ is not a single behaviour, like recycling, but a multiplicity of behaviours [see Note A, below]. This makes it much harder to address. Recycling is the easy part.

2.      Engaging with the public on the range of behaviours implied by ‘waste prevention’ means thinking about the differences between re-using something, repairing it or buying a second hand version; it means thinking about the differences between washing machines, smart phones and lunch. Just because waste and resource professionals think that these are all ‘waste-related behaviours’ it should not be assumed that the general public conceptualise the world in this way [see Note B]. And if you do not speak to the public in terms that make sense to them, they will simply not hear you.

3.      An interesting illustration concerns food. [Delegates had already hear about the significant waste challenge posed by our collective habit of throwing away edible food.] As we have found during various research projects for WRAP [see Note C], people are ashamed of wasting food and do not admit it even to themselves, never mind researchers or questionnaires.

Food behaviours are highly habitual; indeed, eating is so elemental, so basic, that confronting people with ‘mere facts’ about their food habits is often incomprehensible to them. (‘Shame’ is not only a very deep emotion; it is a very difficult thing for people to discuss.) Since food attitudes and/or beliefs are frequently not amenable to rational enquiry (even by the individual that has those beliefs!), this also means people often maintain conflicting beliefs.

For example: people may ‘complain’ about the big supermarkets, but when we asked them [see Note D] whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “I enjoy the fact that supermarkets are always coming up with new choices for me”, 53% of the public either agreed or agreed strongly.

And while people may hate the idea of food waste, when we asked – in the same survey – whether people agreed or disagreed with the statement “ I buy more than I really need most times I go to the supermarket”, a third either agreed or agreed strongly.

4.      With people either unable or unwilling to identify or confront the real reasons for why they do things, they – we – rely on stories to explain our behaviours. These stories function as ‘myths’, not in the sense of being ‘lies’ or of being wrong; a myth is a story we tell ourselves to explain things we don’t understand or we find too difficult [see Note E]. They are a way of enabling us to function in a big, scary world. It is crucial to appreciate their power and importance. Simply showing someone some facts and telling them that they are wrong merely encourages them to recoil, to retreat further into their existing beliefs. (Who among us likes to be told we’re wrong?)

To challenge myths requires not ever more impressive or persuasive facts; but new and better stories.

5.      The biggest myth we have these days is that buying things will make us happy. And the myth of consumerism is the deepest challenge facing those of us engaged in ‘waste prevention’. If people repair things and re-use things, if they hire things and use things for longer, then they are not buying a New Thing. And, at the moment, our entire economic model is predicated on consumers buying New Things. If enough people stop buying New Things, then the consequences for our economy will be profound. We’ve only just begun to tackle this particular issue; but it’s something which, in my view, we can only circle around for so long before we absolutely have to tackle it head on.

 

Notes

A ‘Household waste prevention evidence review’, Brook Lyndhurst for Defra, 2009

B ‘Exploring catalyst behaviours’, Brook Lyndhurst for Defra, 2010

C See, for example, ‘Household food waste: attitudes and behaviours’, Brook Lyndhurst for WRAP, 2007; or ‘Consumer insight: date labels and storage guidance’, Brook Lyndhurst for WRAP, 2011

D Survey of a representative sample of 1,000 UK adults, conducted online by GfK on behalf of Brook Lyndhurst , September 2013

E See ‘Mythbusters – investigating public perceptions of the contribution of packaging to waste‘, Brook Lyndhurst for Packaging Federation et al, 2012; and ‘The Language Game of Sustainability‘, Fell, 2013

 

 

Shifting energy cultures

I’ve just come back from researching energy in New Zealand. It turns out there are some pretty fundamental differences in the production and consumption of energy between the UK and  New Zealand. Below are a few examples and accompanying observations and anecdotes regarding possible reasons why this might be the case. At the end I’ll tell you why I think it’s interesting to try and understand some of these differences.

No FiTs
Much of the research I was doing in New Zealand was looking at uptake of solar photovoltaic panels (solar PV). Installations of solar PV in the UK were eight times higher in 2011-12 than the previous year after the introduction of Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs). In New Zealand, not only are there no FiTs, but the buyback rates (the price the energy companies pay to purchase domestically generated electricity) are not generous, and nor are companies obliged to guarantee them long-term. Without this kind of financial incentive, or any ability to accurately assess future returns, there has so far been a much slower uptake of solar PV.

72% renewables
Solar PV has been encouraged as an environmental action in the UK, but this is considerably less of an incentive for the New Zealand government. The vast majority (72%) of New Zealand’s electricity supply is from renewable sources, primarily hydropower and geothermal power. In the UK, it’s around 11%, most of which is wind (on- and offshore) and bioenergy.

Hydropower has long been the primary source of power in New Zealand, with large developments throughout the first two thirds of the 20th Century. Electricity generation in the UK has been based on fossil fuels since coal replaced water during the Industrial Revolution.

In fact, the actual amount of electricity generated from renewable sources is similar, at around 40-50 TWh (see facts for UK and NZ) but clearly the electricity demand of New Zealand with ~4.5 million people is dwarfed by that of the UK with its population fourteen times larger (~63million).

Those of you with astute mathematics will have noticed that the above data doesn’t quite add up. That’s because New Zealand’s per capita electricity consumption is considerably higher than in the UK. Industrial, commercial and residential electricity use are all slightly higher, per person, in New Zealand than in the UK.

No radiators
Overall residential energy (not electricity) use per capita is far lower in New Zealand than in the UK, however. This is because the UK’s domestic energy consumption is dominated by gas (not electric) heating.

energy graph

Energy Statistics for OECD Countries 2011 edn. International Energy Agency.

So, even though insulation and double glazing are far more common in the UK, New Zealanders consume far less energy at home. From my experience in Dunedin at least, Kiwis seem to be accustomed to having cold houses. With the absence of central heating and radiators, efficient electrical heat pumps are deployed in occupied rooms while the rest of the house remains cooler. Electric blankets and/or multiple duvets are the norm in bedrooms, and everyone you speak to in Dunedin can tell you about their experience of wearing layers of winter clothing indoors. In more rural areas, wood burners are commonly used to heat homes.

People I’ve spoken to have suggested that another factor might contribute to lower energy use – perhaps New Zealanders spend more time outdoors and less time using energy consuming appliances at home?

Petrol heads
Spending more time pursuing outdoor activities might, however, be one of the reasons that New Zealand has such high car ownership. There are about 7 cars for every ten people in New Zealand, compared to around 5 cars for every ten people in the UK.

There are perhaps practical reasons for this too – with few apartment and terrace buildings, urban populations are spread out much more than in the UK. Having visited Wellington and spent the last couple of months contending with Dunedin’s hills, I can see why there are so many fewer cyclists than I’m used to in London! In fact, I met a Finnish lady recently who had tried cycling when she first moved to Dunedin, but had quickly given up.

I’ve also been surprised by the lack of rail options in New Zealand. As a result of competition from road and air, only three long distance passenger routes survived a series of closures between 1950 and 2002.  This has perhaps further added to the desire for car ownership.

While New Zealanders clearly love their cars, it’s worth noting that the average age of a car in New Zealand is about 12 years old (in the UK it’s 7.5 years old). There is clearly not the status attached to having a new car that there is in the UK. I’ve heard stories of people refusing to spend more than $2000-$3000 (£1000-1500) on a car, despite spending bigger sums on mountain bikes and other sports equipment. With no domestic car production in New Zealand, second hand cars are imported from Japan, and that’s what just about everyone drives.

Domestic flights seem to be common in New Zealand too. It’s easy to see why people take these flights. As well as rail travel being very limited, driving between the major urban centres would be time consuming – especially if it involves getting the ferry from one island to another! It’s also no hassle at all – turning up for your flight in New Zealand is as quick (and cheap) as getting a rail ticket, with many flights having no ID check or bag scanning.

They’re different? So what?
So, why am I telling you all of this? Firstly, I thought perhaps you’d find it interesting that New Zealand has so much renewable energy, that people drive old cars, and that houses don’t have radiators.

More importantly, I’ve found it an interesting thought-exercise. Clearly if we want to change our energy production and consumption in the UK to a more environmentally friendly (lower carbon dioxide emitting) system, some things will need to change. But what things? By thinking about the practicalities of energy consumption and production in New Zealand and the UK, and the potential to transfer aspects from one to the other, this exercise has hinted at the range of different factors that might need to evolve (or be radically altered) in order for the necessary change to occur.

It looks like there might be some pretty huge obstacles to certain kinds of change (e.g. historic and expensive infrastructure, geography, well-being issues) which require some serious consideration from the likes of big-brained engineers, sociologists, economists, or urban planners. Big infrastructure, policy and regulatory decisions would also have a role.

But it’s not all about top-down change, innovative solutions, or changes in physical networks and infrastructure. What about people’s traditional expectations of supply? Could social and personal norms be changed to accept colder houses? Could people in the UK see cars as a functional transport option, rather than as a status symbol? Perhaps New Zealanders could be persuaded to take on more difficult bike journeys, or to do more video-conferencing?

Or maybe we could all spend more time using less energy?