Energy Policy and Consumer Reality: The Role of Energy in the Purchase of Household Appliances in the U.S. and Thailand
The proliferation of household appliances is a global energy problem, and this comparative study of appliance energy labeling in the U.S. and Thailand offers opportunities to learn from the implementation of programs in countries with different income levels and cultural and political climates. In the U.S., the author conducted participant observation in an appliance store and interviewed 16 policymakers, 14 salespeople, and 100 consumers. In Thailand, the author interviewed 11 policymakers, 53 salespeople, and 62 consumers, and carried out a national survey of 971 consumers. This study is the first time that energy labels have been examined primarily as a problem of consumer cognition in context - that is, how consumers read, interpret, and think about energy labels in the retail environment.
After just three years of implementation, the Thai appliance labeling program is having a significantly greater impact on the consumer appliance market than is the 20-year-old U.S. program. While Thai salespeople report that more than 60% of consumers ask about or look at the label, the corresponding number for the U.S. is just 20%. Energy efficiency was reported among the top three purchase priorities by 28% of Thai appliance consumers, compared to just 11% of U.S. consumers. In the author's in-store tests of label cognition, the U.S. Energy Guide label fared poorly, and the Thai appliance label was more effective at helping consumers to identify efficient models. Yet both labels suffer from the problem of too much detailed product information, which hinders label comprehension.
Salespeople are the missing link in both appliance labeling programs. While they exert a significant influence in at least half of appliance sales, their incentives typically motivate them to sell appliances that have additional features and use more energy. Finally, U.S. and Thai policymakers have defined different purposes for their appliance labeling programs. The objective of the U.S. program is to provide consumers with information to assist in their appliance purchase decisions. In contrast, the objective of the Thai program is more clearly behavioral - to persuade consumers to buy a more efficient appliance that will save money and protect the environment. To support the program, the Thai government has implemented a massive, nationwide advertising campaign.