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24th March 2017
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Soapbox: why we do need to save water
Yvonne Orgill, chief executive of the Bathroom Manufacturers Association, argued for more action in persuading consumers to use less water, at a lunch at the Houses of Parliament co-hosted by the BMA, the National Home Improvement Council and Ideal Standard. Listening to Yvonne's plea, were - amongst others - Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Defra, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, Undersecretary of State for Defra, and 70 representatives of the home improvement industry:
"Welcome to the British summer. Downpours in June. Flooding and rivers bursting. It's "The wettest drought on record".
So we don't really need to save water, do we? Britain is wading around in so much water at the moment that it makes you think that the scientists must have got it all wrong.
There's no real ENVIRONMENTAL reason for us to worry about how much water we use. And if there's no environmental reason to worry, there can't be any MORAL reason to worry either. So let's just luxuriate in this lovely warm deluge and have another five minutes in the shower. Let's just top up the bath one more time and lie back. Relax. Drought? What drought!
If you think I sound like a cynical tabloid journalist, then you're not wrong. There have been scores of stories taking just that line. So is it any surprise that the public is fed up with being told that they need to save water?
In recent years consumers have been quietly grumbling, thinking they're being asked to be green for green's sake, but the volume of those grumbles is growing. Consumers are becoming increasingly cynical towards 'green for green's sake'. We are in a recession, after all. Many homeowners are in negative equity. Some people have lost their jobs and our European neighbours seem to be lurching from one crisis to another. We're all frightened that it's all going to fall, like a big game of economic dominoes. Why on earth should we worry about saving water at a time like this?
The reality is that all of us in this room know PRECISELY why it IS so important. Whatever the public perception, WE know that the combination of a growing global population and only a finite amount of water, means that inevitably we need to reduce water consumption instead of allowing our thirst to grow. It's not about us, this Summer or next. It's about making sure there is enough water for our children. Our grandchildren. THEIR grandchildren. When we're wondering "why should we bother?" - future generations are why we should bother.
The Romans introduced the first engineered water supplies in Britain, and as recently as 1247 our ancestors began work close to here, building the Great Conduit from a spring at Tyburn, bringing fresh water into London. Around 2,000 years to develop a plentiful supply of clean, fresh, wholesome water. How embarrassing would it be in history, if our generation was the one that let it run out?
Our future water security is something that governments have taken seriously, and the current government has its 'Water for Life' white paper which sets out some ambitious goals.
In addition to this, the bathroom industry was set its own challenge - to promote water saving products to consumers. We are doing that through our Water Label scheme, which helps consumers make an informed choice about the credentials of the product they're about to buy. The challenge is a balancing act for our industry, between encouraging consumers to reduce their water usage, and developing products that deliver an experience like we didn't have a water care in the world.
This is more complicated than it may seem. Modern bathing isn't just about getting functionally clean. It's an incredibly emotive experience - whether it's to help wake up and feel prepared to take on the world first thing in the morning, or to unwind and relax after a stressful long day. The bathroom is a place of privacy, a place of tranquility and for people in hectic households, a place of sanctuary. The bathroom industry has to continue to develop products that offer the luxurious experience people demand. Everyone tells us they just don't want to compromise their quality time in the bath or shower.
The great news is that they needn't compromise at all. The number of products which mean we can pretty much 'have it all' continues to grow, as manufacturers invest in developing products that use less water, and still deliver that enjoyable bathroom experience.
But this isn't a recent reaction to a current crisis by manufacturers. Improvements in water performance have been going on for the past two or three decades. The days of the 13 litre toilet flush are thankfully stuck in the 60s, as most of us are used to the frugal 6 and 4 litre dual flush. Although that's not to say there aren't plenty of these outdated WCs still around - some eight million in the UK currently which use more water than current standards deem necessary.
We have moved on massively from the bathroom crimes being committed in the 80s - and I'm not talking about avocado or whisper pink bathroom suites - I'm talking about those 20 or even 30 litre a minute power showers which could drain a conventional hot water tank in a matter of minutes! Advanced product design has given us showers which use the Venturi effect to give the feeling of a powerful, satisfying shower. The very best of these use just six litres per minute - and I'd defy a consumer to find fault with the experience.
We created the Water Label in 2003 as a way to communicate that these products are using significantly less water. It has been adopted widely and today we have nearly 2,000 products on the scheme. Better news still, the Label is out there. In stores. On the shelves. It is there for consumers to see clearly and help them make an informed purchase.
The Water Label hasn't just made an impression here. Over in Europe, it has just been adopted as the standard. An initiative born in Stoke-on-Trent is being rolled out across the EU. It's incredibly positive progress.
But products are only one part of the equation. The second is how people choose to use - and waste! - water within the home.
The Bathroom Manufacturers Association recently undertook a piece of research into consumer attitudes towards water usage. You may not be surprised to find that two thirds of us have absolutely no clue how much we are getting through each day.
Worse than that, it seems like changing attitudes could be a real struggle. Three quarters of people said they felt saving water was one of the hardest things to do. A quarter admitted they'd made no efforts whatsoever to make any reduction in the amount of water they use - ever!
The classic examples of water waste cropped up again - a third still leave the tap running while cleaning their teeth and a quarter let the shower run for several minutes before getting in to warm it up. Using the toilet as a wastepaper bin is still commonplace - flushing that tissue away needlessly.
So if consumers aren't switched on by the moral imperative to save water, then what will engage them? The answer is a financial imperative. Water is cheap. Or rather, COLD water is cheap. But HOT water is expensive, and constantly rising utility bills mean that hot water will only get pricier.
Reducing hot water consumption can make a difference where it matters - to people's pockets. Heating water for use in the bathroom accounts for a quarter of average household utility bills. Our research shows that the most efficient items in the bathroom can help people save up to £300 a year on their utility bills. £300. Not insignificant to the average family in these tough times.
Hot water generation in the home also accounts for 5% of total UK carbon emissions. This means it is an issue which suddenly stretches beyond just Defra. Reducing energy consumption in the bathroom is something the Department for Energy and Climate Change really need to start looking at seriously.
Bathroom products are absent from Green Deal proposals currently. I encourage the Government to think again on this, especially as 80% of consumers say they would fit water efficient bathroom products if a financial incentive was available like the Boiler Scrappage scheme. This needs joined up thinking across government departments. We're willing to take part in the conversation!
So how do we begin to change consumer attitudes towards water and get us all using less?
The Government must take the lead. It's not a campaign which will be glamorous. It's unlikely to be high-brow or intellectual. It certainly won't be telling people they have a responsibility to save the planet. It needs to be simple, clear information on the easy things people can do to save water in their daily lives. So far we haven't had this from Government and it is essential they begin to address this.
But we don't expect Government to do everything. As a trade manufacturers' association we are committed to getting the message out to the public too. We are working with retailers to get the Water Label out into the stores - both the big chains to the independently-run bathroom boutiques. We have been on the radio and in the press helping to educate consumers about the issues of water wastage.
It doesn't require huge change. Small changes to our behaviour can make a huge impact.
And put simply: if you are thinking of buying a new bathroom - and if the mention of avocado or whisper pink struck a chord with you earlier, then I'm talking directly to you - the products are in stores now, to help you make a profound reduction in your consumption of water.
For bathroom buyers it couldn't be easier: Think about what you need, Look for the Label, and Ask if you can't see it. Think, Look and Ask. And that's exactly what we want from the Government. The industry has thought about water saving, it has looked at a new generation of products and now the Government needs to ask the public to take water saving seriously.
So here is my call to Government today - please publicly get behind our 'THINK, LOOK & ASK' campaign.
I know water saving can be a dry old subject, so thank you for listening and please, wherever you can, take the opportunity to talk positively about the benefits of saving water and the Water Label."
29th June 2012