Research Summary

Using theory to inform water conservation in business communities: Formative research from a chamber initiative

Framing water conservation messages to promote behavioral change in businesses

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Growing populations, climate change, and aging infrastructure have made water conservation more salient in the United States. Stakeholders, such as researchers, educators, and policymakers, have developed strategies to encourage the public to adopt water conservation behaviors. While previous research has looked at how farmers and residents conserve water, little is known about how businesses approach this issue. Ensuring that all sectors are conserving water is important to achieving success in water sustainability. This study worked with business owners to identify the most important components of promoting water conservation strategies within businesses, with the goal of developing a conservation education initiative.

This study focused on how theoretical frameworks may predict behavioral change for water conservation initiatives. The researchers investigated the theory of reasoned action (TRA), the theory of planned behavior (TPB), and the theory of normative social behavior (TNSB). TRA suggests a person’s attitude about an environmental issue influences their willingness to adopt pro-environmental behaviors. It includes two categories: 1) descriptive norms, including common behaviors in society, and 2) subjective norms, or behaviors that an individual believes society should adopt. TPB addresses barriers to change by assessing perceived behavioral control of an issue, which is important to developing a successful campaign initiative. If an organization faces barriers or feels a lack of control, then business owners are less likely to encourage pro-environmental behaviors in the work space. Lastly, TNSB proposes that individuals are more likely to change their behavior if they believe the change will have a positive outcome, which is known as outcome expectancy.

This research occurred in an unnamed city in West Texas that relies on ground and surface water as primary sources of drinking water. The city had nearly depleted its water supply, influencing local government officials to identify new potential sources. However, a lack of funding led officials to focus on water conservation initiatives. The authors collected data from businesses through online surveys. To distribute the questionnaire, the authors emailed members from the city’s Chamber of Commerce encouraging them to take an online survey and posted a link to the survey on the Chamber’s Facebook page. The survey was open for two weeks; the authors analyzed data from 153 respondents whose business connected to the city’s water supply. Many of the respondents were owners, CEOs, or COOs from a wide range of businesses. The authors designed the survey around the theoretical constructs of TRA, TPB, and TNSB. The survey asked respondents about four measures: attitude, subjective norms, perceived behavioral control, and outcome expectancy. Most of the questions provided a statement with a scale of answers. For example, questions assessing attitude towards water conservation ranged from a 1 (extremely unimportant/harmful) to 7 (extremely important/beneficial). Once data were collected, the researchers used statistics to determine which theoretical framework (TRA, TPB, or TNSB) could best predict a business’s intention to conserve water.

Overall, the authors argued that TPB may be the most appropriate framework to use when designing water conservation initiatives. They found that perceived behavioral control (including barriers; from TPB) and attitudes (from TRA) were the most significant factors in terms of predicting behavior change.

Of the measures, perceived behavioral control and associated barriers had the greatest influence on behavioral intent. The survey asked owners to indicate some of these barriers and the most commonly selected answers included cost, lack of involvement, time, and maintaining conservation efforts. The authors reasoned that if businesses feel it is unfeasible to adopt water conservation practices due to barriers, then other stakeholders’ perceptions of their choice become less relevant. Attitudes toward water conservation were a significant predictor of behavior change, but neither subjective norms nor outcome expectancy influenced a person’s willingness to adopt water conservation strategies.

The findings of this research are indicative of participant businesses within the specific city studied and should not be generalized to other businesses in other cities. Furthermore, the researchers did not investigate how each respondent influenced decision-making regarding water conservation strategies within their organization. This is an important consideration as owners that do not make business decisions may be willing to support strategies but unwilling to implement policies. Lastly, the authors provided the survey link via email and social media, meaning that the businesses who were more interested in this topic may have been more likely to participate. A larger study with a random sample in another location may have different results.

This research demonstrated that the theory of planned behavior may be used to guide campaign strategies by identifying and addressing businesses’ perceived behavioral control of pro-environmental behaviors. The authors recommend that campaigns encourage pro-environmental attitudes, discourage unfavorable attitudes, bolster confidence in businesses’ capacity to conserve water, identify perceived barriers, and highlight potential positive outcomes. The authors highlighted that most of the survey respondents were previously aware of water conservation issues. If campaigns are designed to target audiences with less knowledge of these issues, the campaign messages should emphasize the importance of water conservation and encourage stakeholders to adopt pro-environmental behaviors. The messages should provide strategies for increasing water conservation awareness or suggest guidelines for how business owners may implement environmental policies successfully.

The Bottom Line

Little is known about how businesses approach water conservation, an increasingly important issue in water-scarce areas. This study applied theoretical frameworks to understand how best to promote pro-environmental behavioral change relevant to water conservation within businesses in a city in West Texas. After conducting a survey of business owners, the researchers found that that theory of planned behavior (TPB) was the most appropriate framework for predicting businesses’ willingness to adopt water conservation strategies. TPB reasons that perceived behavioral control and associated barriers are primary influences of behavioral intent. Consequently, for audiences familiar with water conservation issues, messaging should encourage pro-environmental behaviors, identify and address perceived barriers, and highlight potential beneficial outcomes. For audiences less aware of water conservation issues, the authors recommend that campaigns emphasize the importance of water conservation.