The Proof is in the ‘non-wasted’ pudding

Using statistical equivalents in communications is a good means of motivation providing they’re relevant and up-to-date. A consequence of the reduction in public outreach over the past few years has been that changes to these statistics has gone largely unnoticed by both the public and many of those in Local Authorities responsible for communications. Behaviour Change Expert, Stephen Bates from EnviroComms considers the impacts of this and the opportunities of statistical messaging.

Headline grabbing, attention seeking, motivational statistics have long been used in public facing communications to underpin the validity of recycling: ‘The energy saved by recycling just 1 aluminium drink can, is enough to run a television for 3 hours’, ‘The energy saved from recycling 1 glass bottle is enough to power a light bulb for four hours’…and so on.

Back in the mid 00s, it struck me that, such was the abandon and ubiquity with which theses equivalencies were being used, there existed a risk that at some point, someone would say; “yeah, well - prove it!” and here lay a problem. There often exists considerable distance between the originating research from which a statistic emerged and those that publish them for public consumption. Added to which, interpretation of the original research required a high-level of technical capacity so whilst proof did exist, demonstrating it was not a straightforward affair.

To address this, EnviroComms commissioned a report in 2006 that compiled all the original research for all the main headline equivalencies. For each, a simple explanation of how each statistic was arrived at was provided. The report was made available for free to anyone charged with the development of public-facing waste communications to enable messages to be published with greater confidence and robustness. The report was downloaded from our website a grand total of four times so perhaps, my concerns were unfounded and that public scrutiny on statistical messaging wasn’t an issue. Or perhaps we were ahead of our time.

This issue was brought back to the fore over the last few months as a result of a series of waste minimisation TV advertisements EnviroComms are in the process of creating. Any TV advert has to be verified by an organisation called Clearcast who check that the facts being claimed are accurate and truthful. This process revealed some serious holes in the validity of data, particularly surrounding food waste.

If ever you’ve published food-waste themed communications, the chances are you’ve used the long-standing metric that, on average across the UK, each home throws away a third of the food it buys and that this is worth around £600 per home each year. When ClearCast came back and said, “Yeah, well - prove it!” we found the current facts are somewhat different.

The report from which much of the UK’s food waste statistics are derived (Courtauld Commitment 2025 food waste baseline for 2015) doesn’t actually mention the ‘third’ statistic. That is derived from an earlier UN report (Global Food Losses and Food Waste, 2011), which demonstrated that globally a third of food intended for public consumption is lost. The key word here being ‘globally’.

The up-to-date (and verifiable) statistics are that in the UK today, around a fifth of food is wasted with an annual value of £540 per household.

When when we first started to use the original metric of a third of food being wasted, it was then an accurate statement in a UK context. However, the communications to which that statement was appended has been proven to work. We now throw away a fifth, again demonstrating the positive impact communications has; providing further confidence for Local Authorities to invest in engagement to re-energize public support and participation in recycling, saving money to levels greater than the cost of the communications to deliver that performance gain.

We also have some positive statistics to use as an additional, motivating force. One of the key aims of behaviour change is to normalise the preferred behaviour so if you can statistically prove that most people are performing well, then it becomes easier to convince others to follow suit.

 

What has also changed over this period of time is the level of public scrutiny on the validity of claims made by government institutions. Demand for transparency has increased significantly as has the need for demonstrable proof. It is thus incumbent upon the waste sector to ensure that those statistics presented to the public are up-to-date, accurate and open to the level of scrutiny that now prevails across society.