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The 21st Century Living Project was a real-life experiment involving 100 nationally representative families over 12 months.

Along with sponsors Homebase and their corporate responsibility consultancy Acona, we wanted to find out how to make it easier – as well as cheaper and more fun – for the public to lessen their impact on the planet.

The challenge: motivating change

Here's how we monitored change in the households over 12 months from autumn 2008 to autumn 2009.

  1. Experts carry out a home audit for 100 families, showing areas where they can reduce their environmental impact.
  2. Households receive a £500 grant to spend on improving their waste, water and energy efficiency – plus a selection of green products including an energy monitor, a bag for life and a four-minute shower timer.
  3. 61 families are given a thermal image of their house, highlighting where most heat is escaping.
  4. Households get personalised advice and information to make changes.
  5. A final home audit is done to measure changes in impact.

The findings: easy wins

How did the families do? By the end of the year, participants had made hundreds of changes. Here's what they chose to spend the grant on:

  • 58% increased their use of low-energy light bulbs
  • 55% increased or installed loft insulation
  • 23% replaced white goods with more efficient models
  • 12% replaced their boiler or upgraded the heating system
  • 11% installed cavity wall insulation
  • 10% increased or installed double glazing
  • 14% installed compost bins or wormeries
  • 21% installed a water butt

So what does all this mean? Our top five conclusions:

  • It’s easier to change than people think. The participating households thought almost everything was easier by the end of the project than at the beginning. From using less gas and electricity to travelling more by public transport, it’s easier than people think to change behaviours.
  • It’s not all middle class. There is a myth that ‘the environment’ is mainly a middle-class obsession. But everyone got stuck in with real improvements, and the households from the C2 and D social groups did significantly better in the end.
  • Simple interventions work. The thermal imaging and energy monitors both seemed to change attitudes and – more important – to drive behaviour. Neither costs much, and knowledge is power.
  • Utility billing needs radical reform. This project was staffed by experts, working full time, but staff still couldn’t get hold of simple data showing whether households were successfully cutting their consumption. The average householder stands no chance.
  • Giving people money unlocks investment. In this project, the £500 payment led to additional expenditure in 61% of homes, roughly at the rate of £1 for every £1 of grant. This should make interesting reading for policy-makers, manufacturers and retailers: give people a voucher for £500 off, and they may well be tempted into spending an extra £1,000 - if the right products are on the shelves.