'Speaking Of Waste' And Other Toilet Humor

Last month's column about community-based social marketing (CBSM) generated a lot of mail. Most people agreed that what's needed is more innovative experimentation in the field, and that best practices for this new green marketing approach would evolve through real-life testing. I have to share one comment about my assertion that we can't wait for perfect circumstances before running CBSM projects: "That would be like waiting for all the planets to align to help float your boat." Nicely put.

Speaking of water, here are some other insights from the world of what we're calling "CBSM in Practice." We are in the second stage of a pilot program on residential water conservation. In 2010, we explored how to motivate people to fix toilet leaks. If you haven't heard, 20% of toilets leak all the time, up to 120 gallons per day, flushing up to $250/year on a municipal water bill. In case you're a visual thinker: In Canada, that's like 11 minutes of Niagara Falls of wasted drinking water. Every day. We figured that since we were able to generate a very successful CFL lighting campaign (Project Porchlight) based on a promised savings of $50 over five years, these toilet stats would really resonate.

And so far, it seems to be working! At two weeks in, with over 120 volunteers trained and engaged, 3500 doors knocked on, and after 19 community events, we're learning some interesting things:

  • An astonishing one in four people we meet readily admit that they know that their toilet leaks, and yet they do nothing about it.
  • The No. 1 barrier to fixing a toilet is the perception that the water in the tank is the same water that's in the bowl. We call this the "Gross Factor." Watch for our upcoming campaign video where we dip a cup in the tank for a nice cool drink. Refreshing!
  • Once people see how easy it is to diagnose and repair the vast majority of leaks (something we also teach), folks rush out to do it. Every day I'm getting emails from strangers telling me that they have fixed their flapper. If they are telling us, imagine what they are saying proudly to their friends and neighbors!

Perhaps the most interesting thing of all emerging so far from this fledgling water conservation pilot is connected to something powerful, something that will be harnessed as we take our This Blue Dot campaign beyond the pilot stage. It's something that every community-based behavior program should exploit: People hate waste, but waste motivates people especially well when it is waste that provides no benefit. Pure waste.

The reason why people are fixing their flappers all over Ottawa, Ontario, right now is that there is no personal benefit to hundreds of gallons of good drinking water being silently wasted in the home every day. To put this in context, what we're discovering is that someone who may see no problem with wasting propane to provide ambiance with an outdoor fire pit may be the same person who will readily stick their arm shoulder deep in a tank to fix a leaky toilet.

But, as we know, information is not enough. So it's important to mobilize friends and family and kids with simple first actions, and indulge in a bit of toilet humour and genuine conversations to create some buzz. Wasting water, after all, is a real bummer. And harnessing the community helps people to not only get over Gross, but tap into a latent desire to butt out waste.

Marketing green: It's messy and imperfect and wonderfully fun. Just like life.

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