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

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

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  • Behaviour change
  • Climate change
  • 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?

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  • I've been showering every other day for a while, though I've never felt inclined to share the fact with my friends. Surprised by the story in Alex Watson's comment, though - I've always turned the water off when soaping just because it's a nuisance then, rather than through any desire to save water or energy (though that would be a factor now if I ever contemplated changing my habilts).

  • I was thinking about how this pattern of behaviour (daily bathing) has come about. When I was growing up in the 1950's, my family lived in a nice, detached, lower-middle-class suburban home, so we were hardly poor - but there was no double-glazing or central-heating (we had a coal fire in the living room which we all sat round in the evening, an electric heater in the dining room for meal-times, in really cold winter weather we had a paraffin heater in the hall at night, and we took hot-water-bottles to bed with us - towels really would freeze solid on the end of your bed and we could scratch faces in the frost on the inside of the window-panes) - the bathroom was generally freezing and there was no shower anyway, just a bath and a basin, so a hot bath was run once or twice a week only, as a luxury. Working-class homes at the time often had no bath at all, other than a tin bath which was put in front of the living room fire. A daily morning shower was just not an option. Since then, central-heating and double-glazing have made bathrooms warmer, and hotel holidays have encouraged us to use showers, so we have installed them in our homes, and find them so easy to use.
    The point I am making is that there is no absolute about how often one should bathe. We felt perfectly hygienic in those days - and much cleaner than the Elizabethans, who bathed once a year! If you really needed a wash you had a stand-up in front of the basin.
    I think we're a bit obsessed nowadays about body-odour! I find it equally unpleasant to stand next to someone who positively reeks of some kind of perfume or deodorant, and aerosol spays in changing rooms are the pits!

  • How strange - I bathe or shower when I'm dirty, sweaty or smelly - so if I've been gardening, building a wall, shovelling manure, or out for a vigorous bike ride - or if it's just very hot weather and I feel sticky - I also use a hot bath to warm up if I'm freezing in Winter - but otherwise I bathe roughly twice a week - I haven't got into this American/hotel life-style thing of bathing every day. Notice also I bathe after something - so after I get dirty, after a few days have passed, etc. - not before - which is what the shower in the morning thing is - a preparation for the day ahead - (unless one has had a particularly energetic night...) Which says something about my lifestyle, and the kind of work I do. I do sympathise with those poor sods who have a naturally strong body odour, however - so it's really a matter of what you need, isn't it? There are no moral imperatives, here... But good to save water, and soap, and energy.

  • I think a seasonal approach is best - in the summer more showers might be needed. I've tried to go to 6 a week from 7 a week to cut water use, but haven't managed to cut further. Another one of my favourites is to wear outer clothes (especially work shirts) an extra day to cut back on washing climate costs.

  • Could people be reacting more to the way the information is presented than the act of not showering? If told something like "I wash everyday and shower every second day" rather than "I shower every second day" the reaction may be different. If I can assume that some form of personal hygiene is carried out daily (e.g. quick washing from a basin with a flannel and soap - as many of our forebears have done ) the reaction may differ.