Saturday, July 19, 2008

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

A lot of us think of green living as conscious living – being aware of where our food, energy and products come from, how they were grown or made, where they will go and how they will be handled when their useful lives are over.

But an article in the business section of Sunday’s New York Times, about an English doctor’s crusade to get the populace of Ghana, where diarrhea and other bacteria-caused diseases are rampant, to wash their hands with soap after using the toilet, makes one wonder if teaching people to live consciously might not be less important to the long-term sustainability of the planet than simply reforming their habits.

In the case of green living, all the nagging we do about using less energy, composting, saving water, recycling, etc., has not been as successful as we’d like. Neither have the typical public health campaigns against drugs, AIDS and, in Ghana’s case, using soap to save lives. That prompted Dr. Val Curtis to take a cue from a successful soap seller – Procter & Gamble, which sells billions of dollars worth of Tide, Crest and Febreze, a product marketed to remove odors that had flopped in early ad campaigns – about changing people’s habits as well as their thinking.

According to the article, “Warning: Habits may be good for you,” “as much as 45 percent of what we do every day is habitual – that is, performed almost without thinking in the same location or at the same time each day, usually because of subtle cues.”

When you can get people in the habit of reaching for your product when given a cue – potato chips when sitting down to watch TV, pretzels at 4:30 in the office cubicle or, in the case of Procter & Gamble, a can of Febreze spray when cleaning a room – you’ve got a loyal customer.

Thinking along those lines, Curtis, director of the Hygiene Center at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, knew that Ghanians used soap when they could see their hands were dirty, but because the germs that can accompany going to the toilet aren’t visible, people didn’t feel the same disgust that they did when they could see the dirt. Talking about germs didn’t budge the hand-washing numbers, but an ad campaign that sold the yuckiness of using the toilet prompted Ghanians to get in the habit of washing with soap.

It’s not that simple, of course, and, as Curtis noted in the article, a lot of people don’t like the idea of using manufacturers’ tactics to sell health because, after all, they were created to sell often unhealthy products. ” ‘But those tactics also allow us to save lives,’ ” she is quoted as saying. ” ‘If we want to really help the world, we need every tool we can get.’ “

You can read the entire article at, but hand washing isn’t the issue here.

What is at issue: If we want to really promote participation in sustainable living, we need to tap into the 45 percent of people’s lives that is habitual. If Procter & Gamble can persuade Americans to get in the habit of spraying already odorless rooms with $650 million worth of Febreze a year, the environmental movement ought to be able to cue those same consumers into reaching for the tap when they’re thirsty instead of for a plastic bottle.

A lot of us are offended by what we see as the blatant cynicism of commercial advertising, but if, as the Times article quotes Duke University researcher Wendy Wood as saying: “Habits are formed when the memory associates specific actions with specific places or moods,” then maybe we should borrow a page from commercial advertising’s playbook.

Something to think about.

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