Last weekend, my local borough of Waltham Forest ran an ingenious programme where local residents invited the community into their homes to learn about eco-improvements they had made to their property.
In collaboration with the local artisan café, the Hornbeam Centre, the first Green Open Homes Weekend provided inspiration for local residents to ecorefurb and improve energy efficiency in their homes. More than 15 local residents opened their doors to welcome almost 300 likeminded people who wanted to learn about solar panels, using reclaimed materials for building, energy efficient lighting, and everything in between.
Facilitated by Waltham Forest and made up mostly of volunteers, the weekend’s events clearly demonstrate that there is a growing appetite for sustainable living.
I want to use this example to explore what has fuelled this sudden surge? Is it the fact that people can save money with energy efficient homes? Or that they’re interested in the latest technologies? Or perhaps the sheer fact that your neighbour has taken that first foray into sustainable living and the science of behavioural psychology hit you where it hurts?
Behavioural psychology is a fascinating area – in fact much of my degree focused on the science behind what makes people tick. And all the principles can be applied to urge people to live more sustainably. A client of Grayling’s, Opower, was borne out of this insight. They ran a study in California where one hot summer, graduate students put signs on every door in their halls, asking people to turn off their air conditioning and turn on their fans. One quarter of the homes received a message that said, did you know you could save 54 dollars a month this summer? Turn off your air conditioning, turn on your fans. Another group got an environmental message. And a third group got a message about being good citizens, preventing blackouts. Most people guessed that a money-saving message would work best. In fact, none of these messages worked. They had zero impact on energy consumption. It was as if the grad students hadn't shown up at all.
But there was a fourth message, and this message simply said, "When surveyed, 77 percent of your neighbours said that they turned off their air conditioning and turned on their fans. Please join them. Turn off your air conditioning and turn on your fans." And wouldn't you know it, they did. The people who received this message showed a marked decrease in energy consumption simply by being told what their neighbours were doing.
Much like the Green Open Homes event, the insight into what your neighbours are up to is clearly powerful stuff. I will call it the, ‘Keeping Up With The Joneses Effect’. This doesn’t just pertain to manicured lawns and picture perfect hanging baskets. It relates to how you take your kids to school or how much rubbish you put out on a Tuesday night. A friend recently commented that she hid empty wine bottles in the garage for fear of putting out too many on recycling collection day. But maybe that says more about her levels of alcohol consumption than anything else.
Increasingly though, I feel that the sense of community is growing. Freecycle, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, RentalRaters are all organisations entirely dependent on an active community. The ‘Keeping Up With The Joneses Effect’ is growing in momentum. The real test will be for brands to use this to their advantage to unlock the potential of behaviour change to bring about mainstream sustainable living.