A recent discussion in the New York Times, called “The Siren Song of Energy Efficiency,” caught my attention. A handful of leading energy thinkers responded to a question about energy efficiency with a variety of opinions.
Here’s the question:
“Whatever happened to “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”? Now many civic-minded Americans ask themselves not how to avoid buying stuff, but rather what to buy: that shiny new hybrid in the driveway, the energy-efficient appliances in the kitchen, the right light bulb. Does this pay off for the planet, or does the quest for efficiency distract from more effective approaches to cutting carbon output? What can consumers do that would be more effective?”
One participant, arguing against a focus on energy efficiency, cited “the rebound effect,” which claims that the increasing efficiency of devices is offset by subsequent increases in the use of new devices, requiring more energy and resulting in very little net use reduction.
Annie Leonard, a participant in the NYT discussion and creator of the brilliant video, “The Story of Stuff,” argued for a shift in mindset from “consumer” to “citizen.” She believes that promoting energy efficiency by appealing to people as consumers won’t work. We must appeal to our shared sense of responsibility as citizens to spark greater change.
Still others mentioned economic policy and regulations as better means to effect energy use change…
No one came out swinging hard for energy efficiency – and readers of the Times missed an opportunity to consider an important perspective. Energy efficiency is not a distraction. It is a vital tool in our carbon-cutting arsenal.
But here’s the challenge: consumers will not adopt energy efficiency unless it is presented in a way that makes it appealing to them personally. At KSV, where we continually monitor and analyze the drivers of consumer behavior, we’ve learned that consumers don’t pursue energy efficiency for environmental reasons. They are simply not motivated by environmental protection.
It’s not that they don’t care about the planet; many do. However, they are unwilling to make sacrifices for the lofty purpose of safeguarding the environment. It doesn’t matter how nicely we ask, how strongly we argue, or whether we engage them as “consumers” or “citizens.”
So, what is the key to building interest in energy efficiency?
Step one is to give people what they really want: personal benefit. For most consumers, that means great products. These are products that deliver a more satisfying experience with no sacrifice, require at most a very small premium in price, and promise significant long-term savings.
Step two is selling those products with the right communications – communications that focus on consumer benefits, not environmental protection.
For proof, look at ENERGY STAR, the EPA program started two decades ago this year. In 1994, there were little more than 2,000 Energy Star qualified products on the market. Today, more than 5 billion ENERGY STAR products have been sold. The EPA estimates that ENERGY STAR products have helped prevent more than 1.7 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering our atmosphere.
The key to the success of ENERGY STAR – and other efficiency efforts – is not the altruistic behavior of consumers, but rather the excellent products available and the opportunity for big savings.
When it comes to cutting our nation’s carbon footprint, energy efficiency is certainly not the only tool in our bag, but it is an important one. To achieve meaningful change, we will need to concentrate on both the ideal, long-term solutions and on the short-term progress we can accomplish today. We need to recognize that consumers aren’t interested in lifestyle change, large upfront costs, or products and programs that require continuous engagement.
If our goal is to reduce carbon emissions, then our mission is to create quality products that allow consumers to use less energy, easily. And presenting the right messaging is a crucial part of the strategy. We must recognize what consumers really want, and then give it to them. We’ll be much more successful if we work to enable change, rather than attempt to force it.