The Power of Reputation

2013ftv_oshry_aleezaA few months ago I wrote that the moral imperative of sustainability is not to blindly follow a cause, but to engender relevant solutions that address holistic needs and yield collective benefits. And yet, while this is necessary for the long-term, there are critical issues that need our immediate attention that affect our daily lives. One such concern is particularly relevant this summer.

Our energy consumption broke records across the country and around world last year. Aging utility infrastructure buckled under the strain, creating large-scale power disruptions and blackouts. The cost to get systems back up and running and the resources needed to assist affected communities takes huge amounts of resources from other much-needed services.

Many sustainability commentators posit that blackouts could be prevented entirely with more widespread use of technology that’s been around for years. So if there’s already a solution, why do we have a problem?

Although there are some who are concerned with security or health risks associated with technology, with responsible and safe installation practices, this is not a significant obstacle. Rather, efforts to utilize this technology are mostly hindered by individual apathy and lack of understanding of how participating could prevent often calamitous situations.

This is what’s known as the public-good quandary: Everyone benefits when others participate, but no one wants to bother signing up. There are many efforts that fall prey to this dilemma. People aren’t interested in averting disaster in the distance, and have difficulty seeing past their own property line: My lights are working, what’s the problem?

In the past, utilities have used mailers outlining the benefits of these programs and monetary incentives to encourage enrollment, all with little success. Then, rather than relying on customers to register in the privacy of their own homes, they used public sign-ups. The result: more than a threefold increase in participation in energy-reduction programs.

People tend to respect those who do good and dislike those who take advantage of benefits without personal contribution. Numerous studies show that our reputations are the driving mechanism behind pushing change for the public good. When your reputation is on the line, suddenly people start to care.

Would you turn off your AC when you’re not home or down during peak times if you knew that your neighbors were saving more than 50 percent on their utility bills by doing so? What if your neighbors knew that you were the energy hog on the block, endangering everyone else’s access to free flowing electrons?

It’s not only big utilities that use this model. Similar peer-pressure moves are often used by fundraising campaigns, such as at your synagogue or school, using displays to post the names of those who contributed. The purpose? To tap into your reputational concern over not being associated with the people and cause that benefit your community.

A study released by the U.K. on household electricity use showed that those who believed that climate change was a real concern actually used more electricity than those who didn’t. Agreeing that there’s a problem isn’t equivalent to acting on the solution.

Public reporting can push that envelope and be used as a tool to launch more successful outreach efforts to mitigate a whole host of important public good causes. After all, your reputation’s on the line.

Aleeza Oshry is a local geologist, educator and sustainability consultant.

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