Understanding how people think is essential if we want to try and change our behaviour and encourage the adoption of more sustainable practices. A new international survey report of ING on sustainable homes, Paying the price for greener homes, published in October, sheds lights on some of the reasons why people don’t go green in their homes – and highlights the many challenges that exist to improving environmental sustainability.
“The survey asks respondents what they’re doing to improve sustainability in their homes and also what they feel responsible for,” says Jessica Exton, behavioural scientist at ING, and author of the study. “The good news is that almost eight out of 10 people in Europe believe that it is possible to reduce our impact on the environment when everyone works together. Moreover, half of all respondents say they’ve made green changes to their home – so people are generally optimistic.”
However, many people feel their own efforts at improving sustainability have a limited impact on a global scale. “Just 30% of respondents believe their own home has a significant impact on the environment – and 34% neither agree or disagree,” says Exton. “This may mean the key to changing our environmental trajectory is to work together in a coordinated way and – most importantly – help people to realise that they are part of a broader effort.”
The survey was carried out by Ipsos for ING: about 1,000 people were surveyed in each of 15 countries across Europe, the US and Australia (except for Luxembourg where 500 respondents were surveyed). Perhaps surprisingly, there was little difference in attitudes between the various countries. “We found greater enthusiasm for solar power in sunny countries in southern Europe, for example, but otherwise attitudes to sustainability are broadly similar pointing to the fact that this is a global challenge,” says Exton.
A limited commitment to change?
While most people believe that it is possible for individuals to make changes that improve their environmental sustainability, the survey reveals the difficulties in getting people to do that. “Almost two-thirds of those Europeans who believe their home has a limited impact on the environment say that they are already doing their bit, by separating waste recycling or using energy efficient electrical appliances,” explains Exton.
The main barrier to people doing more to benefit the environment is lack of money. “Almost half of Europeans say that affordability challenges are main reasons for why they don’t do more to reduce their environmental impact,” says Exton. “Lack of knowledge is also cited as a reason for not reducing environmental impact by 26% of those who acknowledge they could do more.
“If I spend money on a kitchen there is an immediate benefit in terms of functionality or social recognition,” explains Exton. “Some of that money could be invested in energy efficient appliances but their benefits – in terms of the impact on the environment – are shared by all. It’s hard for people to link such an investment to a personal outcome.”
One might imagine that a direct reduction in costs, for example from reduced energy consumption due to more efficient appliances, would be a powerful motivator. “But there is a problem with delayed payback – people say it takes too long to recoup their investment,” says Exton. “There’s similar thinking when it comes to solar power which, while delivering financial benefits in terms of earnings from energy exports, can take many years if not decades to repay the cost of installation.”
How to improve affordability
Lowering costs is central to improving sustainability – how can this be achieved? Eight in 10 people in Europe surveyed agree it would be useful if local government subsidised energy-efficient appliances for their homes. Another 80% say the same if local government paid half the cost of installing solar panels in their home. People also want help on a smaller scale: 74% in Europe say that it would be useful if local government paid for additional recycling bins, for example.
“Governments interested in boosting environmental performance need to appreciate the importance of reducing hurdles to adopting green measures in our homes,” says Exton. “To a large extent, lack of a clear business case for investment is at the heart of the problem. But it can also be important to change day-to-day behaviour; for example, government could distribute shower timers to remind people on a daily basis of their energy consumption.”
One potentially worrying revelation from the survey is that a third of people in Europe say they are unwilling to contribute anything towards even low-cost items such as extra recycling bins or shower timers, while 18% say they can’t afford to contribute anything to the cost of solar panel installation and 10% say they would simply chose to contribute nothing. “These findings indicate that there is a core of people unwilling or unable to financially contribute to changes that would improve the environment,” says Exton.
Exton says that governments will need to find alternative ways to encourage such people to reduce their environmental impact. “It’s essential to make environmental solutions salient and tangible to people’s lives,” she says. “For example, people need to understand how much warmer their house will be if they have double glazing as well as the practical benefits to the environment if everyone were to adopt such solutions.”
Getting this sustainability information across in a powerful and concise way will be a big test for governments. “It’s important to work with what we have,” notes Exton. “It’s reassuring that 78% of people across Europe believe we can reduce our impact on the environment when we work together. Governments across the region need to leverage this optimism to bring about real change.”