By Daniel Hunter

Governments around the world are encouraging people to factor the environment into their everyday lives and purchases. Is it leading to more sustainable consumption? Are households ‘going green’?

These are some of the critical questions addressed in the OECD’s Greening Household Behaviour. Focusing on five key areas where households exert pressure on the environment - energy, water, transport, food and waste - the report surveys more than 12,000 households in 11 countries to identify whether governments — and people — are on the right track.

Price incentives are the key to spurring change. For instance, the survey finds that ‘pay-as-you-throw charges’ encourage people to generate 20 — 30% less waste and that households paying for the amount of water they consume are more likely to use it efficiently.

Citing examples from Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Israel, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, the survey reveals that people are ready to make compromises to green their lifestyles. Though reported demand for “green” electricity is significant, the supply is limited in most countries. Some 60% of people say they would be willing to pay extra for cleaner energy. Over 75% state that they would be willing to pay 20% more, on average, for an electric car relative to a conventional car.

Some households are also changing their eating habits — the percentage of household spending on fruit and vegetables carrying the organic label has increased over the past couple of years and now ranges from 13% in Israel to 35% in Switzerland.

But influencing household practices remains a major policy challenge. Better and more trustworthy information is essential. For example, while 83% of the Dutch surveyed trust the European Union’s new organic food labels, only 47% of Swedes do. And the survey shows that almost one in five households say they do not know what recycling collection services are available in their area.

Governments can lead the way by supplying environmentally sound public services and infrastructure to foster the transition to sustainable consumption. The survey notes numerous examples in which provision of relevant services can change behaviour: good public transport is the most important factor encouraging people to drive less; proximity to recycling bins reduces waste generation and increases recyclable waste separation; and people satisfied with the quality of their tap water are less likely to buy bottled water.

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