Soap dodging: Would you shower less to save the planet?

February 5, 2013 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Do you care about climate change? Do you think you have a role to play in helping to reduce carbon emissions? Would you make small changes if you knew they would make a difference? What’s stopping you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these sorts of questions recently, not least because I’m now working on an exciting and important piece of work looking at behaviour change for climate change. In doing so, my imagination has been particularly captured by the work of Elizabeth Shove (rhymes with cove not love). Professor Shove’s work has looked particularly at changing social practices and the implications of these for energy demand and climate change.

Her seminal paper on conventions of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience had quite an effect on me. In the paper, Shove talks about the changing dynamics of social practices and conventions in relation to, amongst other things, personal cleanliness. It has become normal – expected, even – in the Western world, to shower (or bathe) on a daily basis.

This is a relatively new development – Shove notes that it was less than a century ago that a weekly bath was the norm. But the social practice has very much taken hold, and the idea of showering any less than every day is largely unpalatable.

I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take. My decision to do this was a direct response to reading Shove’s work, which made me see that I have succumbed, almost blindly, to participating in a social practice, for no good reason other than convention.

I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take.

Like many people, I’m someone who is, in general terms, quite concerned about the climate change problem. I recognise that my actions contribute to over-consumption and that my behaviour results in a carbon footprint. I’d like to do more than I currently do to make a positive difference, but it isn’t always clear to me what I should do.

Showering less frequently appealed to me because it is such an obvious way to reduce the energy I use in heating water, as well as the amount of water I consume, without having a terribly negative impact on my life. So, for the past three months, I’ve been having a shower roughly every other day.

It was remarkably easy to make the change, and I haven’t felt uncomfortable, unclean or self-conscious. No one has said anything to me about me looking or smelling any worse than usual, so all in all I’d say the experiment has been a success, and I’ve (possibly) permanently shifted my habit.

Great, I thought, this is an easy thing that everyone could do: I’d better tell people about it. I did not expect my friends to react in the way they did. Comments included, “Don’t you feel disgusting?” “I can’t believe you went out for a meal without having had a shower – that’s so disrespectful to your friend.” “There’s no way I could do that, I’d be so embarrassed.” “Isn’t that a bit extreme?” Other reactions were more supportive, but, to my surprise, no one I spoke to was keen to give it a try. Even a friend who works as the sustainability manager for a higher education institution couldn’t imagine “feeling right” without having a shower in the morning.

I really was surprised by this – although I knew the social practices associated with cleanliness are embedded in our society, I somehow didn’t expect to find such deep attachment to them. Am I an extremist for showering less-than-daily? Is it really disrespectful to socialise without having showered? And more importantly, if social practices can become so widespread and so deeply ingrained within a generation, surely they can also be moderated or even reversed. What do you think – would you shower less to save the planet?