Is the only way ethics?

Is the only way ethics?

Roger Crabb considers the key issue of water efficiency – and whether or not consumers are prepared to pay for it.
The cost of living has become the centre of current political campaigning and debate, thrusting the water companies on to the newspaper headlines to take their place alongside energy companies as the latest villains accused of making excessive profits at public expense.
Jonson Cox, Chairman of the industry regulator Ofwat, voiced concern at how water companies have been able to make more money than had been expected between the current regulatory period – 2010 to 2015. Mr Cox has written to the water companies urging them to consider cutting bills and reminding them to behave responsibly and recognise the needs of the customer.
So, with all this political pressure on the water companies you might expect that that water efficiency would be as important to the consumer as energy efficiency is. But the fact is that water efficiency is one area where what the consumer says and what the consumer does are entirely different.
In any survey, consumers agree that saving water and not wasting hot water are desirable. Few argue that the country should have yet more reservoirs at £1 billion each, when a small reduction in water consumption would mean that our existing resources would be adequate. Yet the average UK consumer uses 150 litres of water each and every day – roughly a third more than their European counterparts.
And it is a cause of grave concern, even if the UK has seen a staggeringly wet winter so far. Back in 2011, the Government issued a White Paper (Water for Life) that set out proposals to overhaul the water industry – including proposed rules on how water should be extracted from rivers without risk of running them dry.
The Environment Minister warned that parts of the UK faced droughts unless attitudes to water use changed, and said the Government was planning to ‘incentivise’ water efficiency.
On the domestic front, it was said that households in Britain would be encouraged to install dual-flush toilets and garden water butts to try to prevent water shortages.
However, there has been no surge in sales of dual-flush toilets or any other water efficient fittings.
Another Government might have tackled the problem with legislation despite not being able to dictate behaviour through legislation alone – for example, when California introduced a limit of 10 litres/minute on showerheads as a water-saving measure, Californians just installed lots of shower heads in their bathroom instead.
What consumers need to push them towards water efficiency are the same incentives that impel them to purchase energy-efficient electrical appliances and thermally efficient homes – a combination of ethics and economics.
When energy and water efficiency are perceived as saving both money and the planet, we are likely to see more of a push towards water efficient fittings. Whether that is through water metering or higher bills is, however, a political decision. For the moment, though, there is plenty that the industry can do to help itself as a recent report for WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme, the non-profit recycling advocate) points out.
The report was commissioned by WRAP after Defra asked it to work with retailers and merchants to increase customer take-up of water efficient products. In particular, it wanted to focus on the introduction of water efficiency labelling for all bathroom fittings using The Water Label.
The research included an on-line survey, interviews with installers, visits with consumers, and focus groups with a mixture of social and economic grade of consumers – including those with and without a water meter.
Much of what the research discovered is simply a confirmation of what most people would have thought in the first place. The ‘key purchase motivations’ are nothing to do with water efficiency but more concerned with style and design, price, specification and performance.
Water efficiency is simply a secondary concern.
More usefully, the report highlights how many consumers think negatively about water efficient products. For instance, most consumers believe that water efficient fittings will cost more to buy and are more likely to go wrong than ‘standard’ fittings. This problem is more acute with showers as consumers assume that “a water efficient shower will be a weaker/poorer performing shower, and all of the focus groups were characterised by at least one or two participants saying that a water efficient shower would make them less likely to purchase it”.
By contrast, however, the technology exists to deliver perfectly comfortable showers that use less water (and, therefore, cost less in use) yet cost roughly the same to purchase as its non-ecological equivalent.
The shower industry has itself to blame to an extent, as ‘green’ showers are hived off onto separate ranges from the luxury products. Even the language reinforces this as many showers have an ‘Eco’ setting and a ‘Normal’ setting – the implication being that the Eco setting will give a lesser showering experience.
Perhaps changing ‘Eco’ to ‘Normal’ and ‘Normal’ to ‘Boost’ would be a step towards changing perceptions, or calling showers ‘optimised’ rather than ‘water efficient’?
The WRAP report concludes that consumers are only likely to choose water efficient fittings if they are associated with their prime considerations of design, price and performance. So, consumers are more likely to buy a water efficient fitting if it has lower running costs, improves performance or incorporates a significant innovation such as eco-click taps.
The link between water efficiency and energy efficiency should be easy to promote without complicating the message by talking about global concerns and water shortages.  Consumers do not have to know or care that heating water has the same impact on C02 levels as the aviation sector or that it is harder to heat than granite. What will concern them is that they spend money upon heating something that is literally money down the plug hole – but how many people know the cost per minute of a shower or how that compares to an average bath?
The aim for water efficiency is that it should be established as a necessity in the same way as double glazing and loft insulation. Everyone buying a new house expects double or triple glazing and not because they want to save the planet: they want a comfortable, quiet house without massive bills for central heating. In future, they should want water efficiency in the same way.