The eco-confusion between right and wrong


Most of our research participants reflect on their household products and practices in ethical terms: what is “good” or “bad” for the environment, what is “right” or “wrong” that they do, and what it is that they “should” be doing less or more of in their everyday life. The language of “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”, and “should” and “should not” convey a process of evaluation that people engage in when it comes to ordinary things and actions around their home. 

The 56-year old Melanie, an art consultant and parent educator in a GTA suburb, for example, laments about a second fridge they keep in the basement:

“There is a chest freezer downstairs, and we have an old fridge, so that is not good, an extra fridge, and we do not unplug it, we usually have something in it. Do we need it now that the kids moved out? We’re still keeping it. I did a lot of reading on it, and they say maybe it is not that energy efficient to get a new one, because you are throwing the other one out, and throwing it out in the garbage, still going into the landfill. How much energy are you saving by doing that?”

Melanie’s reflection on the second fridge grapples with contradictory considerations. While she first evaluates having an extra fridge as “not good,” she lists a number of reasons – buying a new one and trashing the old one into the landfill – that actually suggest that the contrary is true: it is better if she keeps it. And then, she interrogates whether keeping the extra fridge saves energy. Such layered reflection and questioning reveal the complicated nature of environmental evaluations, and point to people’s important ethical dilemmas.


Shared energy consumption in apartments

Apartment living was an important topic of conversation at our Earth Day Beyond Green workshop, thus we thought we'd provide some observations from our data on subject.

Living in an apartment-building often constrains everyday green behaviour, but many of our research participants try to overcome such constraints on their sustainability journey, and make an extra step to implement at least some green actions in their households.

Most people in buildings, for example, do not receive utility bills, either water or electricity, or both. Having no control over their bills, some emphasize that “it doesn’t mean that I can just go crazy,” as the 49-year old Sherry, an elementary school teacher in the GTA, puts it. Therefore, many turn off the lights after leaving the room, shut off the water while rinsing dishes or washing their teeth, and purchase CFL and/or LED lights. That said, the 46-year old Don, an unemployed editor in Toronto, concludes that “it is almost inevitable that if you are not paying for it, you will be less careful.” Indeed, when we ask apartment-dwellers about their laundry practices, it is clear that they are more likely to wash their clothes in warm water than house-dwellers. Don even points out that the machines are set on warm in his building. Neither do they follow off-peak hours in their laundry use. Instead, they take other considerations into account, such as availability. While Sherry tries to do early morning laundry, Don does laundry during the weekday, when laundry rooms are not that busy. 

Earth Day and Recycling

GreenShorts was invited to speak at this past weekend's Earth Day Canada's youth event "Beyond Green." The topic was the use of recycling in advertising to change behaviour. We reviewed a number of themes that emerged from our research including how recycling contributes to "eco-pride," why youth seem less interested in recycling and the frustration in over packaging.

Among all the advertising we've discussed with participants over the past year the following commercial has the highest unaided recall.  


Its a powerful example of how to connect emotion, health and wellness and waste reduction. Many participants comment on how they cut out, or significant'y reduced, their purchase and consumption of bottled water. 

We've found that recycling is one topic we can all relate too. 

Acting like our Grandparents is "green"

Many of our interviewees trace some of their environmental habits back to their parents and grandparents, and talk about how they switch off the lights because their parents taught them to, or use vinegar because it is what their mother and father used to use. 

Colleen, a stay at home mother in her mid-40s in Toronto, for example, articulates the importance of reconnecting our lives with our grandparents as follows:

“I will just quote my mom. If we just go back to how our grandmothers did things, we would not have a lot of these allergy problems and the like. We have created a lot of the illnesses that are happening to us. And if we were just stuck with what my grandmother used to use, we would be far better off.” 

And as her grandmother, Colleen uses a lot of vinegar, baking soda, and lemon in her eco-cleaning, and thus considers her grandmother “better” than her own generation, “more mindful of health and the environment.” Many other research participants echo Colleen’s argument, and advocate “a return back to the old ways.”


Learning green at work

Workplaces can significantly contribute to citizen-consumers’ everyday environmentalism. Many people acquire green perspectives and practices at work that they can easily transfer to their households. 

Deb, a 35-year old facility manager in a GTA suburb, has learned about phantom power and unplugging her power bars at work, and now she does it at home. Hannah, a Brazilian Home Depot employee in her late 30s, has learned about printer cartridge-, battery-, light bulb- and electric gadgets recycling at work, so she takes all these items to work, and tosses them to the appropriate recycling bin. Ann-Marie, a 63-year old widow in the Waterloo area, used to celebrate sweater days at work, when they lowered the heat a couple of degrees. Now, she tries to keep the heater low at home, and puts on a sweater. 


Address the Intention-Behavior gap through multiple characteristics

The following Individual characteristics produce valuable knowledge for more accurate 'personification' of a green consumer:

  • Altruism -- concern about the welfare of society and others*  
  • Perceived consumer effectiveness (PCE) -- perception of the extent that individual actions can make a difference for environmental problems
  • Environmental concern (EC) and previous purchase history -- individual's awareness of environmental problems and their willingness to be part of the solution** 
  • Trust -- consumers trust that individual acts can make a difference
  • In-group identity -- individuals are influenced by what others in their group think and are motivated to feel part of the group by exhibiting similar behaviours awareness of identity within groups can increase conformity to group ideals***
  • Expectations of others' cooperation increases green purchasing behaviour

[ *sources available in Short: Attitude-Behaviour Gaps ]  

Gender differences in household environmentalism

In many households environmental considerations are played out in a particularly gendered way. In contrast to claims about Green being the new Pink, our ethnographic research reveals that the gender of everyday environmentalism depends on the product category one looks at. 

While men often take energy use more seriously, and have a key role in making decisions about the purchase of bigger appliances, from fridges to furnaces, women are responsible for the consumption of cleaning and personal care supplies. Even though husbands and wives often equally share chores in dual-earner households, the dynamics of interviews reflect the dynamics of the relationship and where each partner has their control. When talking to Mike and Judy in their suburban home, for instance, they alternated in their answers, depending where each had more focus, so Mike talked about their house heating and cooling practices, their smart meters, lighting habits, and the rationale behind not buying an electric car, while Judy addressed cleaning, cooking, personal care, and gardening. Or when we visited Laura’s house in Toronto, she discussed her household products and habits with us quite in detail, but it was her husband, Ron, who interfered and asked us towards the end of the interview whether we noticed the Bullfrog power sign in the front yard. Ron has just recently bought into Bullfrog power to offset some of their electric usage in the house. 


Contradictory energy usage

Frugal energy and environment-saving practices co-exist with some energy-draining ones in people’s homes. While most research participants set their thermostat at around 20 degrees or below, switch off their lights after leaving the room, and follow off-peak hours to use their dishwasher and laundry machines, they also program a light or two to switch on in the late winter afternoons and remain on for the evening, crank up the heat in their children’s rooms, or have another fridge in the basement.

Greg (37) in sales and client service in Toronto echoes the rationalization of many:

“We have a timer set up here, and another one upstairs in the guest bedroom, in the front. Oh, we have a regular one [bulb], we did have a swirly in that one, but the light was so dim, you could barely see it, so we went back to the regular. They are probably for security, more than anything else, and I would say a little bit of convenience, too. We typically come home a little bit later, so it is kind of nice to have the light on when we get home. But we are both, it is kind of how we were brought up, religious about turning the lights off. It is second nature, I always do that.”

Greg’s example shows that people embrace contradictory practices, and their frugality can be challenged by other, more important considerations, such as safety and convenience.


Strong connection between health and green choices

Illness often pushes people towards green household products and practices. Judy, a 42-year old stay-at-home mother in a GTA suburb, for example, connects her experience with breast cancer with her environmental considerations:

"It is important to draw the link of green choices to disease. There is an overall health issue here. We know that some of the chemicals directly affect health, whether it is asthma, allergies, or cancer. The increase of chemicals increases these health issues. Having gone through breast cancer is one of the reasons I pay attention to ingredients, and I did start paying attention to cleaning products. And there isn't a particular chemical to avoid. It was not one chemical, it was lots."