A convenient choice is most commonly defined as one which saves us time and effort.
It could be argued that adopting environmentally friendly behaviours requires forgoing some convenience. Just looking at some of these behaviours, versus their less sustainable alternatives. Cycling versus driving. Composting versus putting everything in the rubbish bin. Turning off appliances at the wall versus leaving them on standby. Each of these greener options quite clearly require more investment of time and effort, however small the difference.
In a society where we are increasingly “time-poor” (or are increasingly told so anyway), the task for those promoting sustainability requires overcoming the barrier of perceived inconvenience. How important is convenience? Reviewing research related to “cognitive effort”, Garbarino and Edell report that “a consistent finding is that humans have limited cognitive resources and allocate them judiciously”. In order to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of decisions we are required to make every day, and the myriad choices available, we are attracted to things which reduce the amount of mental effort required. This is one reason why we develop habits, as a shortcut to having to make a new decision every time we encounter the same need. Garbarino and Edell also found that “it is clear that people are willing to forgo some benefits to conserve cognitive effort”. This explains, for instance, why we are willing to buy convenience snacks which we know are less healthy for us.
The effort required to make the decision itself also has an effect on the perceived desirability of our choices. The study by Garbarino and Edell found that, when faced with a choice between two products, the effort required to evaluate a product created a negative emotion towards that choice, even though the attributes of the choices were the same. People were also willing to pay more for the product which was easier to evaluate. This has important implications for many aspects of promoting sustainable choices, such as labeling. When we are asking people to buy the most environmentally friendly product, if it is hard work for them to identify its environmental benefits they are not going to view it positively.
Another demonstration of the importance of convenience is the effect of the “default option”. Studies have found that we will often accept the choice which is presented as the standard option, rather than make the effort to consider the alternatives. Among the most interesting of these was a study of a German town where green energy was offered as the default option, resulting in 94% of people continuing to purchase it, in contrast with single-digit uptake in towns where non-renewable energy was the standard offer.
The stiff competition which convenience provides for sustainability promoters raises an interesting question. Are we best to attempt to convince people to reduce the emphasis they place on convenience, or should we direct our efforts to making green options more convenient? The former option would require a re-framing of the value which we place on certain behaviours. Cycling, for instance, would struggle to compete with driving on the convenience stakes for many people (although traffic congestion in many cities is fast tipping this balance). However, the benefits in terms of wellbeing, cost and environmental impact offer an opportunity to put a strong case for cycling – a case so strong that the trade-off in terms of convenience may seem worth it. On the other hand, some people are likely to drive a harder bargain when it comes to giving up convenience. So making cycling more convenient is also effort well spent. Better cycling tracks, facilities and information would all reduce the perceived trade-off of time and effort.
Therefore, the answer to the question of whether to attempt to influence the importance people place on convenience, or simply to match the convenience of less eco-friendly options appears to be “both”. Although the addiction to convenience has arguably caused us to become disengaged from the realities of production, there is strong evidence that humans are pre-disposed to seek options which minimise our time and effort. In other words, a need for convenience is here to stay, so we can either fight it, or meet it.
The quest to make sustainable options more convenient would benefit from an awareness of the key elements of convenience. Interestingly, nearly all discussions of convenience are centred around marketing to consumers. However, it is possible to apply many of the principles to other types of behaviour which are not necessarily related to purchasing. One useful model which outlines the elements of convenience is presented in Understanding Service Convenience. The model describes 5 types of convenience:
- Decision convenience – how easy it is to make a decision about the product or service.
- Access convenience – the perceived time and effort required to initiate service delivery
- Transaction convenience – perceived time and effort to secure the right to use the service
- Benefit convenience – perceived time and effort expenditures to experience the service’s core benefits (such as the travel time required to experience the convenience benefit)
- Post-benefit convenience – the time and effort to re-contact the seller after the initial purchase (e.g. for returns or repairs)
Understanding and incorporating these elements of convenience may go some way towards making eco-friendly options a more convenient choice, and reducing yet another barrier to the uptake of a more sustainable lifestyle.
Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations. Visit www.awake.com.au for more info