Fostering Sustainable Laundry Habits with Behavioral Science
0 min read
Your laundry may have a larger carbon footprint than you realize. Cleaning just a single load of clothes can come with substantial CO2 emissions — especially if you’re using warm water. 60% of laundry’s carbon footprint is attributed to the wash cycle, mostly due to the energy-intensive process of heating the water.
The good news: washing clothes in colder water is an easy and effective way to reduce emissions. Lowering the washing temperature from 60°C to 30°C can reduce the carbon footprint of laundry by as much as 60%. Not only that, but recently updated detergent formulas are showing good results even in lower temperatures, making cold-water laundry a win-win for both consumers and the planet.
Persistent laundry habits
But these facts still aren’t widely reflected in consumer behavior. In particular, Germans are a nation of warm washers. Doing laundry at 40°C or even 60°C is still common in German households. Even turning the temperature up to 90°C for very dirty items is not unusual. Recent research by P&G Germany1 reveals that Germans wash at an average of around 43°C, which is higher than the European average. Despite all the evidence that makes cooler wash cycles a no-brainer, many of us still use warm water for our laundry. This suggests that underlying behavioral factors are to blame, rather than any kind of performance-related issue.
No net zero without consumer engagement
Consumer engagement is critical for reducing emissions from laundry. This is why P&G Germany and WWF Germany launched a three-year partnership, with the goal of leveraging their complementary expertise and global influence to inspire consumer behavior change. From this partnership, the behavior change campaign #WirDrehenRunter (We Turn Down) was born. Its goal: to reduce the average temperature of laundry washing in Germany by at least 1°C per year over the course of 3 years.
Procter & Gamble (P&G)2 is one of the leading consumer goods manufacturers in Germany. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is one of the key global NGOs on environmental protection. WWF Germany is an independent part of the international organization, with an outreach wide enough to influence social norms on a national scale.
Both organizations have climate ambitions dating back many years. Between 2010 and 2020, P&G managed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from assets owned or controlled by the company by more than half. In 2021, the company announced its ambition of net zero GHG emissions by 2040, and published a comprehensive climate transition action plan. This plan includes reducing laundry-related CO2 emissions by 30 million tons, accounting for more than 10 times P&G’s annual emissions from all its operations.
Designing, evaluating, and iteratively improving a behavior change campaign
The starting point for the #WirDrehenRunter campaign was to identify the underlying behavioral causes for washing at high temperatures, as well as the potential prompts and messages that could trigger long-lasting behavior change. Therefore, it was necessary to find the most suitable campaign elements for influencing behavior through behavioral insights and tools.
Lastly, a comprehensive evaluation concept to measure the campaign’s impact on behavior and to inform improvements and adaptions over time was developed upfront. The Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP),3 a think-and-do tank specializing in behavioral approaches for sustainable lifestyles, was brought on board to scientifically support developing the campaign and designing the evaluation approach.
A behavioral model meets reality
Certain practices of doing laundry are so deeply ingrained in the way consumers run their household chores that it takes a deeper understanding to change them for the better. The design of the campaign started with a co-creation process with the partners, led by the CSCP. The goal here was to understand current washing behaviors and barriers to change, as well as opportunities that could offer a springboard to changing consumer behaviors toward more sustainability.
While the target behavior that needed to be changed was clear from the onset, specific barriers and opportunities were yet to be identified. The CSCP introduced the COM-B model, developed by Susan Michie et al.,4 which posits that behavior change is a matter of three key things: capability, opportunity, and motivation for a target behavior.
Based on existing consumer research conducted by P&G, the three partners used the COM-B model to assess different barriers for changing behavior towards colder washing as well as opportunities that the campaign could capitalize on. As a result, we identified several groups of barriers to colder washing.
To develop potential solutions, we drew from a number of relevant fields (including marketing) and from past sustainability campaigns. In particular, we looked into social norms, role models, the power of positive emotions, nudging, and targeted information provision and feedback. Our review of these concepts left us with a wide range of interventions to be incorporated into the #WirDrehenRunter campaign.
Barriers to colder washing — and how to overcome them
The first major barrier we identified was a lack of knowledge: many consumers were unaware that washing colder can be a pro-environmental behavior. On the other hand, many of them were likely to take action if the cost-saving aspect of colder washing was explained and presented in the right way. This is why the campaign #WirDrehenRunter developed a TV spot and a series of social media posts to highlight the financial benefits of colder washing.
The second issue we identified was that washing is a matter of routine and habit, which consumers don’t think about and are unlikely to question. As mentioned above, washing warm is also the norm in Germany. Our campaign took on the challenge of changing norms by working with influencers to frame colder washing into a new social norm.
The most important barrier we identified was that consumers are often not aware that advanced detergent formulas guarantee high performance even at cold washing temperatures. This is closely linked to worries that laundry will not get clean at lower temperatures and a “gut feeling” that washing must be done warm or hot. Some consumers also worry about chemicals in modern detergents.
The campaign designed activities to increase awareness and address this barrier in different ways. For example, Ariel (a leading brand of laundry detergent in Germany) and WWF published advertorials in specialized magazines explaining how colder washing can meet hygienic standards, and targeted the awareness of customers via TV spots and social media.
P&G and WWF also organized a pop-up cold wash launderette in Hamburg, where interested people could test the effectiveness of Ariel detergents with their own laundry and receive direct feedback. In the launderette, consumers could experience the effectiveness of Ariel when washing in cold water by bringing their laundry and washing it on the spot.
Understanding behavioral changes
As a scientific partner, the CSCP designed an evaluation framework for the campaign in order to assess both the average temperature changes and the effects of the campaign on overcoming behavioral barriers to colder washing.
To measure temperature changes, we got help from a representative consumer panel of German households. We asked them to take photos of their washing machine panels when doing laundry before the campaign started (to get an unbiased measure of washing temperature, avoiding social desirability), as well as after (in May 2023). This method of data collection helped us avoid social desirability bias, helping to ensure that participants wouldn’t lie about water temperatures in order to impress the researchers.
To assess the campaign’s effects, we ran a monthly survey with specific questions related to barriers for colder washing, as well as qualitative focus group discussions.
The evaluation framework and methods have been reviewed both internally by all project partners as well as externally by field experts. The first evaluation results will be available in the summer of 2023. With this close monitoring of both actual changes in average washing temperature and how people perceive the different barriers the campaign aims to overcome, we intend to iteratively improve campaign elements, adjust messages, and tackle remaining barriers. Our longer-term collaboration and commitment are a solid basis for this approach.
What makes this work so unique?
The #WirDrehenRunter campaign has now been running for nearly a year in Germany. It has been a first of its kind in many ways.
Firstly, this partnership is a highly ambitious project to reduce carbon emissions in the use phase of consumer goods through behavioral science. The three partners have brought together scientific insights and methods of behavioral science to achieve impact on a scale we haven’t yet seen.
Secondly, we have organized our work building on the complementary strengths of the partners involved. P&G, as a leading consumer goods producer, contributes a deep knowledge of consumer behavior, and is deeply committed to reducing emissions along its entire value chain. WWF Germany, as a globally recognized NGO, has substantial expertise and public credibility to encourage more sustainable behaviors. The CSCP, as a scientific partner, brings its expertise in behavioral interventions and their rigorous evaluation.
Finally, we have set the structures to learn from and improve the campaign over time, using our comprehensive evaluation framework and planned feedback loops to iteratively adjust the campaign messages and tools.
With the Year 1 results, we will re-evaluate our joint approach and adapt and pivot if needed. Our goal remains the same: turning down washing temperature in Germany by engaging all households.
With this initiative, we hope to pave the way for new approaches in the industry sector, enabling organizations to take responsibility for their products beyond the sale point. We believe that campaigns like #WirDrehenRunter can empower citizens to explore and adopt low-carbon lifestyles, and facilitate impactful collaborations between diverse stakeholders. By sharing our steps as well as the learnings along the way, we want to initiate an open dialogue and invite others to co-shape the transition towards sustainable societies.
- Ein kleiner Dreh mit großer Wirkung: Wäsche kälter zu waschen, schützt das Klima und spart bares Geld. (n.d.). https://pgnewsroom.de/pressemeldungen/pressemitteilung-details/2022/Ein-kleiner-Dreh-mit-groer-Wirkung-Wsche-klter-zu-waschen-schtzt-das-Klima-und-spart-bares-Geld/default.aspx
- Procter & Gamble. (n.d.). Procter & Gamble Deutschland. https://de.pg.com/
- CSCP gGmbH. (2023, July 25). CSCP gGmbH | Investing in a Good Life. https://www.cscp.org/
- Michie, S., Van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1748-5908-6-42
About the Author
Rosa Strube is the Head of Sustainable Lifestyles at the Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP), a think-and-do tank based in Germany. She is passionate about designing, implementing and evaluating behavior change interventions to help solve different sustainability challenges related to human every day activities. She strongly believes in the need for different players from civil society, industry and science to work together to collaboratively test and mainstream solutions to support the sustainability transition. Rosa holds an MSc from the London School of Economics and Political Science and an MA from the University of Bonn, Germany.