If You Want People To Save Energy, Money Talks In The Long Run

Telling people they’re saving the planet isn’t super convincing when compared to cold, hard cash.

If You Want People To Save Energy, Money Talks In The Long Run
[Illustrations: maxim ibragimov via Shutterstock]

What’s the best way to get people to save energy? Do we respond better to moral messages (as in, “turn down the thermostat because you’re burning up the planet”) or financial messages (“you could save money”)?


There’s been a lot of debate about this question because there’s evidence both ways. A recent study of 118 households in Los Angeles suggested that appeals based on environmental and health benefits were stronger than economically focused ones, particularly among households with children.

But others say we’re really economic animals and we’re most likely to respond to messages that say we could save X amount each year by, say, investing in upgrades to our houses or buying more efficient appliances. The success of companies like Opower would seem to fit into this category. We’re driven by peer-pressure and opportunity to save.

A new study from Japan shows that both sides could have a point, but that the economic case is stronger over the long-term. When researchers from Kyoto University, Boston University, and the National Graduate Research Institute for Policy Studies compared the effect of moral and economic messages on a total of 691 households, they found the moral one was effective in the short-term, but the financial one was longer-lasting.

The households were recruited from the Kyoto prefecture in the summer of 2012 and the winter of 2013 and split into three groups. One group received messages saying “substantial energy conservation would be required for the society during critical peak demand hours.” Another larger group got messages saying prices for electricity would rise 40, 60, or 80 cents per kilowatt hour during peak periods. A third acted as a control.

The “moral suasion” group cut usage by 8% initially but the effect “diminished quickly when we repeated the interventions,” a paper describing the work says. The economic group cut usage by 14%-17% depending on the price increase and the “effect was persistent over repeated interventions.”

Energy efficiency is no idle debate in Japan, where authorities have been struggling to make up for the loss of several nuclear power plants, including the disastrous Fukushima Daiichi complex. In reality, energy-efficiency campaigns need not be either/or. They can involve morality, peer-pressure, information about the environment and be tailored to different groups depending on what they’re most likely to be persuaded by. The Japan study shows that economics may be the most important in the longer term, though.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.