by Elena Babaeva Coradini, Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis LLP, and Tabitha Crawford, Balfour Beatty Energy Solutions LLC
Sustainability is a commonly used word in today’s discourse, be it in relation to green building, alternative energy or corporate initiatives.
Government officials, policymakers, the private sector and utility companies are all attempting to drive the adoption of more sustainable methodology and technology.
The approaches these groups take, however, often run counter to the findings that stem from years of market research and academic studies about what causes people to change their behavior for a prolonged time.
Policymakers, utility companies and other key players that decide to incorporate more sustainable practices should consider the human behavior aspect of incorporating new technologies.
Why should human behavior factor in when sustainable measures are undertaken?
Individual behavior is key to sustaining initiatives over time and at their best capacity, thus creating the change desired when implementing long-term initiatives.
Education, altruistic aims, penalties and rewards are good tools to encourage use of more sustainable measures.
One of the more powerful methods of encouraging human behavior change, however, is to use economic envy with other social marketing techniques to ensure that people adopt the change, use it to the best of its ability and sustain such change.
First, although education plays an important role in encouraging change, this approach is often minimally successful.
Education and sustained behavior change in adults have a zero percent correlation, Loren Lutzenheiser wrote in “Marketing Household Energy Conservation: The Message and the Reality.”
For example, while most people know the value of turning off lights when leaving a room to conserve energy, it appears difficult for many people to incorporate that change into their lives.
Incorporating changes that would lead to sustainability—such as replacing lightbulbs with more efficient models or doing an energy assessment on a house and incorporating the suggested changes—are expenses that most people are reluctant to accrue even if they are educated about the associated benefits.
Overall, even if education leads to a change, making the change sustainable is challenging.
Second, although some people are passionate about sustainability, altruism alone cannot create a significant change in enough people to make a long-term impact.
Altruistic goals are ignited by existing passions, but they do not predictably create new behavior changes in others.
Self-motivated change agents have become altruistic environmentalists and green building or energy experts, but otherwise altruistic tendencies have not successfully motivated grassroots change.
To incite others to act, effective social marketing techniques have been proven more effective, as mentioned in the books “Made to Stick” and “The Tipping Point.”
Penalties are another method frequently used to encourage change and implementation of more sustainable methods and practices.
Laws that penalize work occasionally, but they are usually hard to enforce once they have been passed by policymakers or governing bodies.
In addition, penalizing inaction or less than sustainable behavior is usually controversial and often generates negative publicity, such as the case in considering penalizing developers who do not build greener buildings.
Although penalizing such behavior often works, overall it is difficult to implement and especially so during hard economic times.
Where there is a stick—a penalty—there often is also a carrot—a reward.
Some utilities and governments have attempted to reward people who adapt more sustainable practices. For example, the Nashville Electric Service (NES) through the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) encourages the people of Nashville to conduct home energy audits.
To reward this behavior, which potentially could save a lot of money in energy bills for the city and its citizens, NES offers a credit that is paid back once an energy assessor completes an assessment and the consumer implements some of the suggested changes.
As well as rewards work in some aspects, often it is difficult for utilities and government to find the funds to reward people, and therefore these programs are hard to pass during difficult economic times, and often they do not sustain a large enough change.
Now that we have reviewed the benefits and downfalls of using rewards and penalties and an appeal to altruistic tendencies and education—and noted the difficulty in making the programs and change of behavior sustainable—we can look at a potentially more powerful tool: economic envy.
Creating economic envy—a concept in which feedback is provided so people can compare their progress against that of their neighbors and friends—can help create lasting change in a significant manner.
Robert Cialdini was one of the first social psychologists to study what motivates people to be more environmentally conscious and active.
His studies led him to note that people look at peer information and are powerfully impacted by it, responding to information that shows a social norm, which encourages people to adapt those norms—an effect he has termed “social proof.”
The economic envy concept is now used by Positive Energy, a company that develops software that shows energy usage by neighborhood and allows consumers to compare their energy use against that of their neighbors.
This concept of keeping up with your neighbors has been shown to have positive results in places such as Sacramento, where Positive Energy ran a pilot program that provided residents with statements comparing their data on energy use with that of their neighbors.
This pilot program led to a reduction of energy by more than 2 percent in a year, which amounted to taking about 700 homes off the grid out of the pilot sample of 35,000 homes.
This pilot study shows that economic envy creates a cost-effective way to institute change to benefit all by tapping into the market- and academic-based facts we know about social modeling, competitiveness and being part of a movement.
Similar behavior-based programs are underway in privatized military housing communities.
Because most residents are not billed separately for energy consumption, voluntary conservation is key to reducing community costs (which translate into improved local homes and amenities).
Balfour Beatty Communities currently owns and operates 43 such housing sites and is working with Ennovationz, a California-based energy efficiency company, and various technology providers to conduct conservation behavior studies.
Preliminary military housing observations show that behavior change can double the energy savings in lieu of technology changes alone.
Companies and the military are beginning to see behavior change regarding energy use as a business risk consideration rather than simply an altruistic approach.
All methods used to encourage change are in some way effective, but coupling traditional methods with economic envy can help create a more lasting change in a cost-effective manner.
Utilities, policymakers, companies, politicians and the private sector should consider instituting successful social behavior techniques to drive change individually while creating rewards and penalties on a larger scale for communities and cities as a whole.
Elena Babaeva Coradini is a LEED AP attorney practicing environmental and regulatory law with Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis LLP. Reach her at 615-850-6120 or email@example.com.
Tabitha Crawford is president of Balfour Beatty Energy Solutions LLC in Nashville, Tenn. Reach her at 615-423-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.