An increasing number of consumers in Finland and elsewhere is concerned about climate change and state that they are willing to change their consumption patterns and habits, at least to some extent, with the aim to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. (OECD, 2008; Ecorys, 2008). However, the actual behaviour of consumers shows that by and large environmentally inspired changes in consumption patterns do not amount to anything substantial.
In recent years in many countries, not the least in Europe, experiments have been carried out regarding the development of personal or household level carbon credit systems (Hongisto et al., 2009). Research indicates that positive feedback such as bonuses is – in principle – more effective than negative feedback such as sanctions and taxes (e.g. Andreoni, 1994), notably in less clear choice situations. There is a mounting evidence that the involvement of an informative interface towards the consumers can enhance the effectiveness of emission reduction policies for households (Throne-Holst et al., 2007; Jackson, 2005), notably with respect to those parts of household consumption where price signals have at best limited effect.
This paper draws heavily on literature research and empirical testing done in the project Climate Bonus, which is carried out by a team from five Finnish research institutes. The key purpose of the whole project is to assess the possibilities and effectiveness of a combined feedback and bonus system for households, i.e. the Finnish Climate Bonus Pilot, which would incite them to consume in such a way that greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. The system could also incite retailers to offer a product portfolio that advances the choice for low GHG solutions by households. In order to enable a bonus system that functions properly, is credible and offers meaningful information to the consumers, the development of both an underlying information system and a web-interface to consumers is indispensable.
In this paper we examine the feedback and bonus system from the consumer’s point of view. More in particular we are interested in the possibilities and effectiveness of inciting changes in consumer behaviour with the aim to reduce the embodied emissions of household consumption. We study consumers’ experiences and judgements of the feedback and the bonus features respectively with the aim to infer whether such systems in principle can promote the desired behaviour and what features in the design and services provided seem to affect actual responsiveness and continuation of interest of consumers. The issues that receive special attention are usability, utility and accessibility of the system.
Testing the feedback and bonus system
In the Climate Bonus project a demo version was developed for an internet-based feedback and bonus system for households, including a version for PC’s and an elementary version for mobile phones. The system allows households to monitor the development of their cumulative greenhouse gas emissions at various levels of aggregation of their purchases (i.e. several product groups) and to compare their scores with those of a peer group. The system also informs on acquired bonus points, which can be earned on the basis of a reduction of (calculated) embodied emissions of the cumulative aggregate purchases as compared to a pre-defined personalised reference level. The product groups now covered at a product level by the system include food-stuffs, home energy, transport fuels and transport services, with special focus on food-stuffs. In addition, some other groups of consumption are included just at a general product group level.
A first pilot was carried out in which approx. 35 consumers (households) from three different areas used the system to monitor the (cumulative) emission content of their purchases. Both the PC version and the mobile phone version were tested for a period of four weeks. During and after the trial the system was assessed by participants. People participated on a voluntary basis. A gift voucher was rewarded after the pilot.
Participants were asked to try out the different parts and functions of the system. They were also requested to purchase their food-stuffs from a selected number of supermarkets that were taking part in the pilot. A few key data per product, e.g. the type of product and its weight, were automatically registered by checking in a key card at the cash desk. The dedicated key card could only be used in designated supermarkets. In addition, participants could register themselves food-stuffs bought from other shops, purchases of residential energy and motor fuels, public transport trips, as well as expenditures to other main categories. Participants could follow the development of the cumulating emissions of their households, and in two areas also the accumulation of bonus points. On purpose one group was excluded from the bonus option to get indications about differential effect between feedback and feedback plus the option for bonuses.
During the pilot period participants were asked to fill out an electronic questionnaire concerning their experiences of the system. In addition, after the pilot period evaluative focus group discussions were arranged in each area. They were employed to gain contextual information on the experiences and views of the participants.
The pilot produces information about consumers’ different responses to a feedback and bonus system. It also reveals many aspects on its usability, utility and accessibility. Finally, it gives insights to the possibilities that this kind of system offers to decrease climate impacts of households, by identifying and pointing on the most harmful consumption patterns that each household and consumer had and rewarding with bonuses from the related 'climate-smart' choices.
The feedback also includes many proposals to develop the system and especially its web-interface, and these will be taken into account in possible forthcoming projects to develop the system further.