Why hasn’t sustainability become a big thing in kitchens and bathrooms?

Sustainability is the biggest issue facing the human race – until those humans go and buy a new kitchen or bathroom. Bad habits are hard to break, says kbbreview managing editor Andrew Davies.

Let’s begin this post by saying that we all know why sustainability is a huge issue. We can safely say we’re past the point where global warming is breaking news and, if you’re still a sceptic, you’re the kind of person to whom there’s little point also wheeling out the evidence against Elvis being alive, the moon landings being faked or the world not being flat. (Spoiler alert: he’s not, they weren’t and it isn’t).

So given that we know we all need to be significantly more sustainable in all aspects of our lives, why do consumers still manage to leave all those obligations at the door to their new kitchen or bathroom?

Put simply, despite all the focus, it is still not really seen as a factor in the choices Mr and Mrs Smith make when they’re standing in the showroom or talking to their installer.

Don’t get me wrong, there are huge investments and advancements being made by manufacturers in this industry. Some may debate the collective pace of the activity, and there’s no question that widespread greenwashing makes it difficult to see the details, but it is a major focus of virtually all companies who make stuff in this sector .

This momentum, however, is not driven by Mr and Mrs Smith but rather the need of housebuilders and developers to tick all the legislative boxes of compliance being pushed on them by the Government. If brands want to get their products specified in these big lucrative construction projects then they need to be compliant.

But that still doesn’t really address the main issue. There is plenty of evidence to suggest Mr and Mrs Smith are not questioning the sustainability of the kitchen and bathroom products they’re choosing in any significant way.

And those that are selling it to them, and those that are fitting it, aren’t pushing it towards them as a result – and why should they?

For instance, a recent survey by the Bathroom Manufacturers Association found that only a quarter (28%) of installers said they are regularly recommending water-efficient products to consumers and 13% said that there is no interest in this type of product at all, from them or their customers.

Over in kitchens, a survey of consumers by appliance brand, Beko found that nearly nine out of 10 (89%) respondents ignore what’s best when it comes to energy efficiency in the home, despite 80% of those surveyed knowing how to use their household appliances in an energy efficient way.

The problem, it seems, is the difference between what we say and what we do.

It’s easy to find evidence that consumers are putting environmental concerns at the forefront of their purchasing choices. A study by Deloitte, for example, saw a third of consumers stating that their trust in brands would be improved if they were recognised as an ethical/sustainable provider by an independent third party. A similar proportion (32%) claimed that their trust in brands would be improved if they had a transparent, accountable, and socially and environmentally responsible supply chain.

But here’s the rub – my view is that if someone with a figurative clipboard came up to Mr and Mrs Smith and asked them what their opinions of sustainability were they’d probably say something equally as worthy…and then go home and choose the biggest water-drenching shower they could for their new dream bathroom.

Let’s go back to the Beko survey. Almost nine in 10 consumers (87%) said they believe in the importance of energy efficiency and 78% take an interest in purchasing products that look to improve their household’s efficiency. However, the majority admitted to engaging in energy inefficient behaviours that are known to waste energy including leaving the fridge door open when deciding what to eat (29%), leaving a freezer plugged in when it’s got nothing in it (20%) and leaving gadgets on charge for longer than they need (37%).

My own anecdotal experience confirms all this too. I regularly ask kitchen and bathroom retailers and installers whether their customers ask or show interest in the environmental credentials of products or, indeed, how to build efficiencies into their new project. The answer is always a resounding ‘no’.

So why is this the case?

Well, partly it’s about how that information is put across. Another recent survey by Unhooked Communications said that more than half of consumers would like to buy sustainable products and materials, but believe they are more expensive.

Additionally, around half stated that they were worried that brands’ claims about their sustainability credentials might be misleading or inaccurate.

More than a quarter (27%) also reported not knowing where to check to verify the sustainability claims of home products, with just under a quarter saying they don’t understand the terminology that businesses use to explain a product’s credentials.

So communication is key, but I think there is also a perception that for products to be made sustainably and, importantly, to operate in an efficient way then there must be compromises. And for a new kitchen and bathroom, that means a lesser performance. If you’re investing thousands in your dream project, the last thing you want to do is compromise.

Whether that’s true or not isn’t the point – brands, retailers and installers are already pushing against that perception.

In my view, too much of the conversation is built around both the environmental credentials of the production of the products and how recyclable they are at the end of their lives. This is never going to resonate with Mr and Mrs Smith. They’re buying their dream project, not a pint of milk, and it’s going to  last them at least a decade or more – they’re not thinking about what they’re going to do with it at the end.

Equally, how they personally interact with it is as much a factor in the sustainability of it as anything. Every appliance can have an ‘eco’ setting but what’s the point if no one uses it? Your shower can be incredibly water efficient but so what if you’re going to stay in it for half an hour.

These issues are not insignificant. According to the Office for National Statistics, households account for 26% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. The National Housing Federation says the average family or household in England is currently producing more CO2 every year just by living in their home than they are by driving.

For this industry to play its part in the fight against climate change it needs to stop focusing on the environmental credentials of how the products are made – this is the minimum expectation – and start talking about changing the habits of consumers in their day-to-day interaction with them.

How can manufacturers, retailers and installers help and advise their customers to lead more environmentally conscious lives everyday, not just when they’re getting rid of their old kitchen or bathroom and buying a new one.

And, the big question is how can they make consumers see this is a positive feature, not a compromise?

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