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Speaking Sustainably

When convenience is the enemy of energy conservation

Automatic bill pay lets customers tune out, ignoring the money and energy they waste. How can we make life smoother and yet sustainable?

Exciting new gadgets such as the Amazon Dash button highlights the role convenience plays in clinching customer loyalty. But there’s an unintended consequence related to convenience: overconsumption.

We know from Eco Pulse that convenience trumps the environment for many Americans, and although about 70 percent of Americans claim they’re searching for greener products, the story in our numbers is that most of them actually just want sustainability to be automatic. They’re essentially saying, “Just bake it into your products and services so I don’t have to think about it, and let me keep buying the stuff I want to buy anyway and just feel less guilty about it.”

Our counsel to many companies would be exactly that: give them what they want, bake it in and build your marketing messages around the fact that you’ve taken care of the environment on their behalf.

But that doesn’t work if we’re actually trying to get people to change their behaviors. In many cases, when we make sustainability automatic, we make conservation harder.

Blissful ignorance, wasteful behaviors

It’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” When something such as the Amazon Dash button puts your consumption — and the costs — out of sight, the checks and balances system for your consumption habits is thrown out of whack. According to a recent study (PDF), utilities’ automatic bill pay programs are having that kind of effect.

After analyzing millions of electricity bills for a South Carolina utility, Steven Sexton from Duke University found that residential customers enrolled in automatic bill pay (ABP) programs used 4 percent to 6 percent more electricity on average than customers who had to access their bill in some way to pay it. Business customer enrollees used even more.

Sexton figures that, within the utility’s service territory, all that extra energy adds up each year to the equivalent of 14,800 homes’ average consumption. The convenience factor is butting heads in a big way with any energy efficiency initiatives that are in place, perhaps canceling out some energy savings customers ought to be gaining through more efficient purchases or behaviors.

Keep automatic wastefulness at bay

As of 2010, two-thirds of Americans with any sort of recurring bills paid them automatically. The quest for all of us working to conserve energy (or water) is to keep the topic in sight so that people actually will think about it. How do you do that when the traditional point of pain is no longer visible or so painful as before? Here are a few ideas:

You’ve implemented one automatic technology … don’t stop there

Sexton knows the value of an ABP program, and we agree. But you can couple it with ongoing messaging that serves to keep energy consumption front of mind, while also building an actual relationship with consumers. Let them set targets for what they want to consume/spend in a month and shoot them updates on how they’re doing, along with tips to do even better.

Use ABP to get energy monitoring displays/devices into people’s hands

Offer a monitoring device or a smartphone app when customers enroll in ABP. Show them how to use it, and how the real-time information can help them make important tweaks to their behavior.

Be frank about this phenomenon

Americans expect companies to make doing business with them more convenient. They also appreciate when you act as a partner in their quest to lower their spending. Give ABP enrollees the caveat: “Convenience could come with a price for you, but we’ll help you make sure that doesn’t happen.” If you have a high concentration of one demographic enrolled in ABP (Millennials, residents of the largest city in your service area, etc.), you can add a reminder to efficiency program marketing that they need to watch out for the extra dollars that creep on to their bills when they’re not looking.

Convenience and conservation might never be buddy-buddy, but they don’t have to be enemies, either. New programs and technologies that boost convenience also can add new opportunities to engage, build trust and empower consumers to make the choices that align with their values.

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