Water Efficiency Messages

Hot air baloons

Communicating persuasively is a key element of effective water efficiency. Whether we are trying to raise awareness, tackle a specific behaviour or recruit people into a scheme or project, the way we communicate is crucial. How can we persuade people to be more water efficient?

What are the messages that really work for water efficiency?

This article has been inspired by some of the messaging we see being used everyday to promote water efficiency. Of course effective communication is not simply about the message you use, there are an array of other factors to consider such as who is your messenger, what tone to adopt, what media or channels to use, and the timing of your communication. There are many guides available to tackle these and other related topics, and so here we will put them to one side and drill down into one particular aspect, the message itself. We explore the ups and downs of some of the most common messages used in water efficiency communications.

Money

Environment

Energy

Reducing Waste

Social Norms

Money

A frequently used approach is to highlight the money saving potential of water efficiency. This type of messaging has a common-sense fit within the current climate where concerns about the cost of living and ever increasing bills are prevalent. Messages drawing on this element certainly seem logical, but actually there is a wide range of reason why we shouldn’t rely on money saving alone as a motivator for change.

One of the problems with using money as the main element to persuade people to save water is that this approach assumes individuals behave in a measured and rational way, which we know they do not. A range of factors such as habits, social influence and so on can impact upon even the best intentions, so people will say they will change their behaviour to save money but that is often not the reality.

this approach assumes individuals behave in a measured and rational way, which we know they do not

This is compounded by the fact that the financial savings achievable by the average household are not very impressive when broken down, particularly for those without a water meter. If people ignore the lure or saving £200 by switching broadband provider they are unlikely to make the effort to save £15 a year (or around 4p a day) by reducing the depth of their bathwater!

Likewise the prevalence of money saving messages means that people are sceptical about savings, so money saving messages around water must be realistic. This approach can also lead to Jeavons Paradox whereby people will use more water if they think their devices are saving them money, swapping financial value for amenity value.  

Another side effect of focussing on money saving is that people will focus on hot water (as many are not metered, and even those that are will get a far better saving when energy is involved too), an issue that is explored further under the energy heading. This is not to say that we shouldn’t use potential money saving in our messages, but that it should be used with caution and in conjunction with other motivators.

Environment

Saving water is good for the environment. Lots of people don’t understand how, and we are often scared to push the environmental aspect of water efficiency for fear of scaring people off with ‘green’ messaging. But unlike many of the other ‘green’ behaviours, saving water has a very special and clear link to the local environment. Yes, being water efficient will reduce carbon emissions and this global environmental element will resonate with keen environmentalists. But being water efficient also has a direct impact on rivers and streams by reducing the amount of water taken from them for us to drink and use.

You don’t have to be a keen green to appreciate your local river and care about its future

You don’t have to be a keen green to appreciate your local river and care about its future; you could be a fisherman, a water sports enthusiast, a dog walker, a duck feeder, a cyclist, in fact almost anybody. Drawing on a community element and the collective need to take responsibility for a visible and local water body can have a real impact. Using language that talks about ‘plants and animals’ rather than ‘aquatic ecosystems’ will also enable people to engage with environmental issues.

Energy

Water efficiency has clear links to energy efficiency, with around a quarter of a household’s energy being used to heat water. People receive lots more messages about the impact of energy on the environment than that of water, and their energy bills are also much higher than their water bills, so it seems like it should make sense to highlight and explain this link. However, it is important to show caution when using this as a message to persuade people to change.

Water efficiency must remain a message in its own right if it is to gain long term traction

When considering energy saving, the focus is usually within the home and the link between hot water use and energy. Whilst saving hot water is important, too much focus here can mean that saving cold water is reduced in significance and that the reasoning behind saving water is lost.There is no in-home energy link to cold water use such as toilet flushing or garden watering, however these are important areas to address from a water efficiency perspective.

Water efficiency must remain a message in its own right if it is to gain long term traction. As with money, this is not to say that messages drawing on energy efficiency should not be used, but that they should be used as part of a package.

Reducing waste

People do not like to think of themselves as wasteful, and so messaging around this angle can prove fruitful. However it is important to keep it positive.

it is important to keep it positive

Whilst people may think their neighbours or other households in their town waste water they rarely perceive their own use as wasteful. Therefore openly making people feel guilty for wasting water is likely to result in denial or people switching off to your message. A positive message highlighting ways to reduce the waste of water combined with the benefits of doing so is likely to have much more success.

Social Norms

OK so social norms are not a message in themselves, but are so important to keep in mind they are receiving a special mention here! Unlike celebrities, for water efficiency not all press is good press. It is crucial that any messaging used reinforces that saving water is a normal behaviour, not something unusual.

Unlike celebrities, for water efficiency not all press is good press

A recent article in the mainstream media listed cutting down your shower time of putting a cistern displacement device in your loo as extreme environmental behaviours – an example of an article that was meant for good actually doing harm. While at the opposite end of the spectrum a light hearted national radio piece discussing which piece of clothing you wash the least is likely to have done wonders for people realising that it is completely normal to wear jeans or jumpers more than once before washing them.

 

There is no silver bullet that will persuade people to be water efficient

There is no silver bullet that will persuade people to be water efficient. Water efficiency is a complex issue and if any communications are going to be effective we need to figure out how to deliver a complex message drawing on a range of issues. Add to that the fact that individuals will respond in different ways to different messages, this is not a one size fits all situation. That is why it is important to draw a range of messages and motivators into any campaign.