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Greening Household Behaviour

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  • Personal behaviour and choices in daily life, from what we eat to how we get to work or heat our homes, have a significant effect on the environment. Their impacts are likely to intensify over the coming years without stronger and better‑targeted policy efforts. How should governments respond? We need to intensify our efforts at developing growth strategies that promote and win support for more environmentally benign lifestyles and consumption patterns.
  • This report – based on the Environmental Policy and Individual Behaviour Change (EPIC) survey, carried out in 2011 – helps governments to better understand household behaviour towards the environment in five key areas: energy use, water use, transport choices, food consumption, and waste generation and recycling. The second of its kind (the first was carried out in 2008), the survey collected information from more than 12 000 households across Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Israel, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. It also identifies policies that work to promote “greener” behaviour at the household level.

Survey respondents can be grouped into three main groups when it comes to their environmental attitudes: i) “environmentally motivated” who believe that sacrifices will be necessary to solve environmental problems; ii) “environmental sceptics” who believe that environmental problems are often exaggerated; and iii) a group of “technological optimists” who believe that environmental problems are real, but that technological innovations are key to solving them.

For all these groups, governments need to show convincing evidence not only that changing behaviour is necessary to meet the challenge of scarce resources and climate change, but also that individual households’ choices can make a difference, from recycling to choosing public transport. And where people are willing to change, governments need to have the policies ready to help them do it. They also need to take account of the gap between people’s good intentions and actual behaviour.

Findings from the survey reinforce the need for the right economic incentives to influence people’s decisions. Consistent with the 2008 survey, findings from the 2011 survey underline the significant role of environmental attitudes in shaping behaviours. People will not make an effort to go green if they do not believe there is any real need to do so. In addition, in areas such as energy, water and personal transport, scaling up service and infrastructure is critical. You cannot forsake your car for public transport if there is none available that goes where you need to be, or switch to cleaner energy if there is no supply available. And for specific groups of households that cannot afford to take up more environmentally benign practices, providing grants may also be warranted. Spurring desirable behaviour change therefore requires a mix of instruments.

Key findings

There is significant unmet household demand for electricity generated from renewable sources. Around 60% of respondents would be willing to pay extra for such electricity to while 45% express an interest in having differentiated rates for renewable energy if this option were available to them.

Most respondents in each country are engaged in some forms of energy‑saving behaviour. However, 40% of respondents report that they “occasionally” or “never” completely turn off appliances with stand‑by functions. On average, higher‑income households engage less frequently in energy‑saving behaviours.

Water charges based on the amount of water used increase households’ efforts at water conservation, both in terms of investments and habitual behaviour.

Governments play an important role in promoting household investments in energy efficiency. Households reported receiving government support for around 16% of the energy efficiency investments recorded in the survey.

Energy efficiency labels also play a role in reducing electricity demand. Households who recognised energy efficiency labels for appliances spent on average 6% less on electricity than households who did not recognise these labels.

There is a significant stated willingness to pay an additional price premium for the purchase of electric cars, although actual ownership remains very low. There is broad stated support for additional government investment in public transport infrastructure.

Households’ stated mean expenditure on organic fresh fruit and vegetables varies across countries and ranges from 13% to 35% of total expenditure on organic and “conventional” products.

There is wide variation across countries in the levels of recognition and trust in labels. For example, trust in the new European Union organic food label varies from 47% (Sweden) to 83% (Netherlands) among respondents who recognised it.

Waste generation tends to be between 20% and 30% lower for households subject to pricing of waste by volume or weight. The two policy measures that respondents most strongly supported in terms of waste generation rates relate to waste prevention – encouraging retailers to use less packaging, and households to purchase products with less packaging.

In all six countries involved in the two rounds of the survey, there was a significant increase in the percentage of respondents who felt that environmental issues should be dealt with primarily by future generations, although older people felt that it was up to them as the generation that created current problems.

Key recommendations

Measures that increase consumer access to greener choices, such as investment in infrastructure (e.g. public transport or recycling services), are important complements to policies that make green choices cheaper.

Need‑based grants for water efficiency investments could provide an important means of improving water conservation.

Households who rent rather than own their homes make fewer financial investments in water efficiency. Programmes for increasing water‑saving investments among tenants could be a useful way to address this issue.

Household demand for electricity does not depend on household income levels. This means that, without additional policy measures, higher energy prices are likely to have adverse welfare impacts on low‑income households without significantly reducing consumption.

Scaling up public information and educational campaigns is critical for raising household awareness of costs and charges (e.g. of waste collection or water consumption) and increasing understanding of climate change.


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© OECD (2013), Greening Household Behaviour, OECD Publishing.
doi: 10.1787/9789264181373-en

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