An article in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, “The Secret to Turning Consumers Green,” claims there’s a sure-fire way to get people to use fewer resources and be more environmentally responsible: guilt.
Last January, Washington DC began charging consumers a five-cent tax on each plastic and paper bag they received at retail stores throughout the district. The money apparently didn’t phase people much; most seemed willing to pay the nickel. However, in the first quarter of the year, about 11 million bags were handed out at retail outlets—down from an average of 68 million in previous quarters. And during the annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup day in April, volunteers retrieved 66% fewer plastic bags from the river than they had the year before.
So what made the difference, if not the money? Peer pressure, according to the article. If a consumer wants a bag, he or she must specifically ask for it when checking out, right in front of all the other shoppers. A district councilman speculates that embarrassment, rather than concern for the environment or even concern for one’s wallet, is the strongest motivator.
Another example: We’ve all seen the cards in hotel bathrooms encouraging us to help save water by reusing towels. As an experiment, one hotel chain printed up two versions of the card and placed them in different rooms. One version simply urged people to reuse their towels and protect the environment, while the other claimed that 75% of hotel guests reused their towels. People staying in rooms with the cards that cited the virtuous actions of fellow travelers were 25% more likely to hold onto their towels.
Would the same idea work with lot-level stormwater measures—using rain barrels, disconnecting roof drains from the storm sewer system, and the like? Rather than offering stormwater credits, telling people what their neighbors are doing might have just as powerful an effect. (Just think about the peer pressure associated with recycling, a now well-established behavior.) For commercial properties, the technique—telling businesses their customers expect a certain action or standard of environmental responsibility—might work even better.
People love to compare themselves to others, and there are more ways to do that than ever before. Forester has created an iPhone app, Waterprint, that tallies up the amount of water needed for common activities and products: taking a shower, brushing your teeth, growing a banana or a pound of beef, making a pair of jeans, manufacturing—and delivering—the bottle that your bottled water comes in, and so on. (You can download the app at http://waterprint.net.) If you’re so inclined, you can tally up the water needed for every action you take and product you consume throughout the day and compare your water use to that of the average person in the US, or the world.
Is something similar possible for stormwater—perhaps a program that estimates the effects of various actions on the watershed? Do you think the concepts involved are familiar enough by now to most people?