The Snackwell Effect Worries Environmentalists

Posted on March 22, 2009

They call it The Snackwell Effect and environmentalists are worried about it. The Snackwell effect was named after the phenomenon that when people buy fat free cookies they eat more cookies. Environmentalists say that
As President Obama and Congress pump billions into energy conservation, experts warn that the promised energy savings could be undermined by consumer behavior. There is even a name for it: the Snackwell Effect. Just as dieters might binge on Snackwell's low-calorie cookies, people who buy energy-efficient items for their homes sabotage their efforts to save power - often by using the appliances more heavily, studies have shown.

A marketing survey to be released today showed that one-third of respondents who made energy-efficiency efforts at home saw no decrease in their energy bills, and a 2008 study by University of Michigan economist Lucas Davis found that people given energy-efficient washing machines washed more clothes. "It could be that by doing something virtuous, it gives you license to do something indulgent somewhere else," says Portland State University's Loren Lutzenhiser, who studies energy consumption.

People who install efficient lights lose 5%-12% of the expected energy savings by leaving them on longer, said Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez of the non-profit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. People who buy an efficient furnace lose 10%-30% of their savings, probably from raising the thermostat, she said.
Okay, this is just bizarre. We get the whole "the cookies are fat free, so why not eat the whole box" thing, because that's just the way humans are wired. When faced with "guilt-free" cookies, they eat the cookies. But why in the world would people use their lights more because they have energy saving bulbs? Perhaps it's not intentional? They install an energy efficient light bulb, then forget about turning off the lights when they leave the room. That we could understand. But the idea that people get an energy efficient washer and think "oh, thank goodness, now I can wash three times as many clothes" is ridiculous. Most people wash the minimum that is necessary to get the job done.

We have to wonder about this study's methodology.