Time to fix it: Changing water usage behaviors

by Klaus Reichardt — This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of FMJ

Several years ago, a water district in the southeastern United States faced some significant water challenges.

Not only was the region’s population growing, but due to drought and near-drought conditions, the local water district found it was turning increasingly toward underground water sources to serve its communities.

Greater dependence on underground water, or aquifers, can have several long-term negative consequences. Over time, it can cause wetlands to dry out, reduce lake levels, produce water quality and water pollution problems, and cause saltwater intrusion. Further, underground water can dry up. As a result, it is often used as a temporary and not a long-term option.

The district determined that in time, the underground water would only supply about 40 percent of the district’s water needs. To meet the growing demand, it would have to implement some very costly measures to find more water and deliver it to their storage tanks.

Because of the worsening situation, the district began a three-year campaign to change water-use behavior. If they could get consumers and businesses to become more conscious of how they used water and the amounts they used, at the very least it could give itself a little breathing room.

This additional time allowed the district to look for long-term solutions to their water problems instead of being forced into an emergency.

Interestingly, many of the steps they took—and did not take—to reduce water consumption can also be used in the FM industry. What changed water-use behaviors in this district is likely to also work in office buildings and other commercial facilities as populations grapple with water restrictions and calls to reduce consumption.

A crucial element of the water district’s success was its messaging campaigns. In a commercial building, an example of this would be visual messaging, where banners and posters are put on the walls to remind tenants of an event or encourage them to do or not do something.

In psychology, similar messaging is often called suggestions. The posters and banners create an image about something or some action to take. Studies have shown that they can be immensely powerful in changing group behaviors.

The messaging themes that this water district found to be most effective were fear, facts and fun. These can also be used by FMs to help reduce water consumption in their properties.

One messaging approach the water district did not follow is something called “negative messaging.” These campaigns are sometimes referred to as “top-down” campaigns and can come across as heavy-handed.

For instance, reminding people that they will be fined, or that punitive action will be taken for doing this or not to do that, is not always a successful, long-term approach to changing group behaviors. People start to resent them, may purposely ignore them or rebel against them. In some cases, they do just the opposite of what the message is asking them to do or not do.

The bigger picture of why most negative messaging does not change group behaviors is that it makes people feel bad. No one wants to feel bad. Instead, they want to feel they are part of the social good, doing good and doing the right thing.

Messaging That Works: Fear

Fear could be considered a form of negative messaging, but that is not always the case. With these campaigns, no one is punishing or condemning anyone for not using water wisely and more efficiently.

Instead, this approach taps into people’s fear as a motivator by showing what happens—or is happening—under drought conditions or when water supplies are limited. For instance, comparing images of running rivers and full lakes a few years back with current rivers and lakes, dried up and empty, can have an immediate reaction and cause behavioral changes.

People see the situation, it becomes implanted in their minds, and they begin to change their behaviors. When Cape Town, South Africa, was on the brink of having no water at all, the images that proved the most powerful were ones of skeletons of fish in lakes that once held millions of gallons of water.

The problem with fear messaging, however, is that it is not effective over the long term. Its impact wears off. It’s an excellent start to a program, but it must be supplemented with the next two messaging themes, facts and fun, to reach our objective of long-term behavioral change regarding water consumption.

Messaging That Works: Facts

A fact messaging campaign may also be called an educational campaign or an evidence campaign because it uses facts and evidence as proof that, first, something is happening, and second, to take action.

The city of Cape Town produced a video titled “How Did Cape Town Get Here?” In the video, a narrator, using video images, discusses how the area had record rainfall in 2013. Dams were overflowing. But each year after that, there was far less rainfall. The amount of water in the dams was cut in half.

The images showed dead animals and trees where rivers once ran. The video then discussed the impact the water shortage was expected to have on people’s lives and the economy. It was a powerful video that changed water-use behavior.

For FMs, a fact-based campaign could also involve using videos and visuals about a current water situation and the need to reduce consumption. One caveat: the visuals must be memorable. The more memorable, the more impact they will have on changing behaviors.

Messaging That Works: Fun

Jeff Hoffman, a marketing and communications professional, referred to the use of fun as a communication professional’s secret weapon.  “Unfortunately, people accept or reject continuing to read, watch or listen to a message in fewer than three seconds,” he said. “[But] humorous, energetic, and upbeat messages engage audiences long enough to get the message across.”

In 2015, when California was still in the midst of one of its worst droughts on record, the city of Santa Monica came up with some fun campaigns that hit home and helped change behavior. One was their Doggie Dishwasher Contest, which was more of a gimmick than a contest. It pictured dogs licking dishes clean as one way consumers could save water.

Another campaign pictured a man taking showers in his clothes—hitting two nails with one hammer, so to speak. He got clean, and so did his clothes.

It may take a little ingenuity to come up with a fun campaign, but they do work, as do the other messaging themes discussed.

The water consumption battle is different in the U.S. Most middle-aged or older Americans never gave a second thought to how much water we used. It was always available when from the tap, and it was cheap. Water has almost always been subsidized in the U.S., and it still is.

For a variety of reasons, those days are over. Water is becoming increasingly expensive. Climate change is playing havoc with customary rainfall amounts, causing shortages. The population is growing, increasing the demand for water.

FMs are at the forefront of changing workplace water behavior. The actions they take can do more than just help reduce water consumption in their properties. People take changed behaviors with them. Using less water at home and on the go becomes a way of life.

About the author

Klaus ReichardtKlaus Reichardt, is the founder and managing partner of Waterless Co. Inc, Vista, Calif. Reichardt founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water efficiency in mind. The company’s principal product, the waterless urinal, works entirely without water.

FMJ, the official magazine of the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), is written by and for workplace professionals and is published six times a year. FMJ is the only magazine that draws on the collective knowledge of IFMA’s global network of thought leaders to provide insights on current and upcoming FM trends. For more information on FMJ, visit www.ifma.org/publications/fmj-magazine.

Articles in FMJ are the exclusive property of IFMA and are subject to all applicable copyright provisions. To view abstracts and articles not shown here, subscribe or order individual issues at www.ifma.org/publications/fmj-magazine/subscribe. Direct questions on contributing, as well as on permission to reprint, reproduce or use FMJ materials, to Editor-in-Chief Bobby Vasquez at Bobby.Vasquez@ifma.org.

IFMA, founded in 1980, is the world’s largest and most widely recognized association for facility management professionals, supporting 24,000 members in more than 100 countries. IFMA advances collective knowledge, value and growth for Facility Management professionals. IFMA certifies professionals in facility management, conducts research, provides educational programs, content and resources, and produces World Workplace, the largest series of facility management conferences and expositions. To join and follow IFMA’s social media outlets online, visit the association’s LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter pages. For more information, visit www.ifma.org.