This is part 1 of a 2-part series
Water resources will become scarcer as the world population increases, which will have an impact on how and where we use water. If consumer attitudes and behaviors severely reduce or eliminate landscape water use, it will have a widespread and detrimental effect on the green industry. Now is an ideal time to discover the role of consumer attitudes and perceptions of water use and source with regard to landscape plants. These discoveries can be used to better inform educational and marketing efforts to help sustain the green industry during drought periods and changes in water availability and consumer attitudes.
Given the increasing importance of water-related issues across the U.S., it is imperative to increase our understanding of how consumers view water conservation, especially related to the lawns and landscapes surrounding their homes. However, the evidence to date in the literature has been limited to a few states. In addition, we know relatively little about consumer behavior during real and perceived periods of drought, especially with respect to landscape plant purchases. As importantly, we do not know for sure if consumers perceive drought periods correctly, let alone whether they are likely to modify their landscape care and maintenance practices during periods of drought or if a drought influences their plant purchasing decisions at all. We developed this study to explore the answers to these questions, which will have important implications for the horticulture industry. Importantly, we do not know if consumers perceive drought periods correctly, whether they are likely to modify their landscape care and maintenance practices during periods of drought or if a drought influences their plant purchasing decisions at all.
We created an online survey, which included questions regarding a wide variety of topics related to plant and water use including plant purchases and expenditures, attitudes about water conservation and landscape plants, knowledge about water conservation and landscape plants, and demographic characteristics. We collected data September 7-13, 2016, from 1,543 participants dispersed across the U.S. who were both plant buyers and non-buyers.
We defined areas of drought using data from the National Drought Mitigation Center (Heim, 1999). This measure is used to classify levels of drought experienced at any given time across the contiguous U.S. The U.S. Drought Monitor Drought Conditions maps for Sept. 20, 2016, and Sept. 15, 2015,
We classified the respondents into one of four groups to analyze how real and perceived drought affected attitudes and behavior related to plant purchases and water usage. We used the question, “Were you in an area that experienced drought this year?” to assess their perception of drought. We then compared their response to the drought monitor classifications to assess whether they correctly perceived being (or not being) in drought and then classified them into one of four categories: “Perceived/Real” included respondents who correctly perceived a drought when they actually experienced real drought conditions (P/R); the second category was “Not Perceived/Real” for subjects who did not perceive drought conditions but actually experienced them (NP/R); the third category was described as “Perceived/Not Real” for subjects who perceived a drought when their area actually did not experience a drought (P/NR); and the fourth category was identified as “Not Perceived/Not Real” for subjects who did not perceive a drought nor experienced one (NP/NR).
We anticipated that consumers would differ in their attitudes and behavior about plants purchases and water conservation, depending on their real and perceived drought
The average age of respondents was 40 years old and most were women (57.8 percent). Average household size had 1.2 adults and one child every two households. Respondents were primarily Caucasian (87 percent) and approximately a third (28.3 percent) had earned a 4-year college degree. This is relatively comparable to a sample of the U.S. at large.
We found that 16.4 percent of our respondents could be classified in the group P/R (correctly perceiving they were in a drought situation), 29.1 percent were in the group NP/NR (correctly perceiving they were not in drought or under normal conditions), 52.3 percent were classified in the group NP/R (not aware they were in drought), and only 2.0 percent were in the P/NR group (incorrectly believing they were in drought). Since the NP/NR respondents were accurate in their perception that they did not experience a drought, we used this group as a “control” or “benchmark” against which we compared the other groups. Those in the P/R were accurate in that they perceived a drought when they were really in a drought situation. With such a small number of respondents in P/NR group, they were excluded
Demographically, the remaining three groups were similar on most of the listed demographic characteristics. However, the NP/NR spent most on plants in 2015 followed by NP/R and then P/R in 2015 (Figure 1). We did see decreased plant spending on plants for the P/R group and more plant expenditures for the NP/NR or “normal” group. Next, we asked what types of plants were purchased in 2016 (Table 1) and found that annuals were the dominant plant category purchased (by 49.8 percent of the respondents overall), followed by vegetables (41.6 percent), herbs (30.5 percent), perennials (29.7 percent), and flowering shrubs (19.2 percent). A much smaller percentage of subjects in each category had purchased evergreen shrubs (7.4 percent overall), fruit trees (9.3 percent), evergreen trees (6.8 percent), and shade trees (7.5 percent). Very few differences between the groups were observed, with each of the 3 groups exhibiting similar percentages of purchases for annuals, perennials, flowering shrubs, and fruit trees. However, a higher percentage of the P/R group purchased evergreen trees and shrubs compared to the other two groups. The higher incidence of purchase for evergreen shrubs and trees for those who correctly perceived drought during real drought conditions may partly be explained in that some evergreens (not
All three groups had a similar percentage of individuals with a lawn and landscape, and patio/porch area, as well as those who had neither (only 7 percent overall) but
We found some attitudinal differences between the three groups (Table 2). When asked whether they thought water conservation was important, all three groups strongly agreed with the statements and had generally positive attitudes about water conservation. However, we found a higher level of agreement to the statements in the NP/NR groups. This average level of agreement was higher compared to both P/R and NP/R. A similar pattern was found when asked if water conservation was of great concern. Interestingly, when asked if they “know a lot about water conservation” and if they “conserved water in and around their home,” there were differences among all three groups but the P/R group ranked the lowest. Both the P/R and NP/R groups were lower than the NP/NR group for the questions about water conservation practices, including “I use fixtures that help me conserve water at home,” “The price of water restricts what I can do in the landscape areas outside my home,” and “I have decreased my outdoor plant purchases due to water restrictions in my neighborhood.” The only question in which there were no differences stating “In a water crisis, we should not buy or try to maintain outdoor landscape plants” with all three groups moderately agreeing with this statement.
The more people become aware of a drought, the more they may realize they do not know how to deal with their plants in a drought.
This difference in attitude observed among the groups may be partly explained by the Hierarchy of Competency (Adams, 2017). According to this theory, individuals begin as unconsciously incompetent and are initially unaware of what they do not know. The theory then posits that they gradually recognize they have a knowledge deficit, to knowing how to handle the knowledge deficiency. They may further develop
We speculate that maybe the more people become aware of a drought, the more they may realize they do not know how to deal with their plants in a drought. Beal et al. (2013) observed when people who are over or under-estimating their water usage are made aware of their actual water usage (education/awareness) they could change their habits. But, technology engineered to assist with water conservation needed to be tied to water conserving behavior – not used as a crutch. There is a paradox in which the more consumers who underestimate water use are made aware of their behavior, the more they realize they do not know.
In addition, we know relatively little about consumer’s landscape plant purchase behavior during real and perceived periods of drought. Our goal was to better understand consumer behavior during real and perceived drought situations, especially in terms of their landscape purchases and gardening/landscaping activities. We hypothesized that consumers would be similar in their attitudes and behavior regarding plants and water conservation, depending on their real and perceived drought
Funding for this study was provided by USDA SCRI Clean WateR3 – Reduce, Remediate, Recycle Grant Number 2014-51181-22372
About the authors: Melinda Knuth is a doctoral student, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Texas A&M University; Bridget Behe and Tom Fernandez are professors, Department of Horticulture, Michigan State University; Charlie Hall is a professor and Ellison Chair, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Texas A&M University; and Patricia Huddleston is a professor, Department of Advertising and Public Relations, Michigan