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Why people are skeptical of green initiatives — like water-saving washing machines

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Like a lot of western American cities, Aurora, Colo., encourages people to save water. It even pays homeowners up to $3,000 to replace their lawns with something less thirsty. But when one business owner there took it upon himself to be more water efficient, his customers nearly abandoned him. Colorado Public Radio's Rachel Estabrook has this story about the psychology of water conservation.

RACHEL ESTABROOK, BYLINE: Yemane Habtezgi knows about water shortages. He grew up in Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, a country where nearly half the population doesn't have access to clean water.

YEMANE HABTEZGI: A lot of people, they carry water or they use donkey or any other source to bring water to their homes from the river.

ESTABROOK: Now, Habtezgi lives in Aurora, Colo., where he proudly owns a laundromat.

HABTEZGI: And now I'd like to develop laundromat for the rest of my life.

ESTABROOK: Aurora is a steadily growing metro Denver city that relies in part on the diminishing Colorado River, and worries about where it'll get enough water in the future. When Habtezgi bought the business, he replaced all the top-loading washers with front loaders that used half as much water.

HABTEZGI: The reason why I like to make it energy efficiency, water efficiency laundromats - because if I can save water, I save lives.

ESTABROOK: But customers were upset.

Would you feel like the clothes weren't being clean?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

ESTABROOK: They didn't see water sloshing around in the new washers. One I spoke to said, I want to see my suds. A lot of customers did not come back.

HABTEZGI: We tried to save water, but we lost our business almost.

ESTABROOK: This hesitancy to embrace sustainability is what Leaf Van Boven studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He's a professor of psychology and neuroscience. He says, in general, people are not inclined to make sustainable choices if it goes against what we believe to be true.

LEAF VAN BOVEN: We form these associations and have these feelings of familiarity with what works and what we have confidence in, and when that changes, we start to question whether it is as effective.

ESTABROOK: This is notably true when it comes to cleanliness.

VAN BOVEN: People tend to think that when products are good for the environment, especially cleaning products, that they're less effective.

ESTABROOK: And while the most sustainable option is often not to consume something at all, Van Boven says people do not like being told to consume less, especially with water. That reality meant laundromat owner Yemane Habtezgi had to get rid of the washers that customers didn't like. It cost the business about $50,000.

HABTEZGI: It is a part of business. You have to listen to the customers. They teach me a good lesson.

ESTABROOK: Because Habtezgi did find a way, so he didn't have to compromise on his desire to cut water.

HABTEZGI: And now, instead of more small machines, we have bigger machines. That means we save more water.

ESTABROOK: Because people can do bigger loads. And the big washers Habtezgi has now are also front loaders, which the EPA says are the most efficient by far for water and energy. Most importantly...

HABTEZGI: They have the clear windows, the glass. They can see water. When they see the water, they feel very comfortable. Now we have more customers than before.

ESTABROOK: More customers than before. Better technology, not really a broad change in attitude, has meant Habtezgi can keep the business and save water. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Estabrook in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Estabrook