So I bought a toilet – and it does a lot more than I originally needed it to…

17th March 2021

It solved a bathroom conundrum and it also got me thinking about how this unassuming purchase might also help solve climate change…

The story of the toilet and small cupboard
Let me take you back to a few years ago. I was renovating my house and trying to fit a downstairs loo into a cupboard under the stairs. I couldn’t fit a loo, radiator and a sink into the space so I was faced with the prospect of choosing whether to be cold or not wash my hands – neither seemed that appealing!

Then I remembered the amazing toilets I’d seen on a memorable trip to Japan I’d taken a few years earlier and wondered if they held a solution to my challenge. The array of different types of toilets in the often space-constrained cities in Japan is astounding. You can imagine my amazement when I saw toilets with options to play music or spray deodoriser! Meanwhile we struggle in the UK to work out which of the two buttons on a dual flush toilet to push & I learnt at the Waterwise conference today that we waste around 240 million litres each day pushing the wrong one!

The toilet that really stuck in my mind though was this one that had a sink built into the top of the cistern. We found them in tiny bathrooms in ryokan (guest houses) and in the homes of people we stayed with. By fitting a sink on top of the toilet they immediately saved space. Perfect for compact living arrangements and perfect for my downstairs loo.

The added benefit of these toilets is that once you finish washing your hands in the sink, the water goes down the plug and fills the cistern. They’re a space-saving design with integral grey water reuse. So I decided, this was the solution to my bathroom conundrum.

It wasn’t easy to find a toilet like this in the UK. It took a lot of searching, knowing what I was looking for and it cost about £250 more than a standard toilet. I didn’t buy this toilet because I wanted to save water. I bought this toilet because it solved a problem I had – space. The fact it saved water too made it a no-brainer.

How the toilet got me thinking about our planet
Now as a water industry professional and a geographer I know we need to save water. I understand the impact of over-abstraction of water on chalk streams. I see the magnitude of the target in the UK to achieve net zero in the water sector by 2030 and the reliance we have on energy for treating and pumping drinking water.

But as a consumer, I needed to solve a problem that on the surface had nothing to do with climate change or the quality of our rivers.

In my case and in that instance, my ‘need’ was about finding a solution to my space challenge, and improving my home life. At some point in their lives, someone can have ‘needs’ arising from caring about their wealth, their health or their home to ‘needs’ related to their family, their children’s futures, their community or even the planet’s well-being.

We know that our needs drive our values, and that our values drive our behaviours – but measuring these needs in a universal way that is useful is difficult. When it comes to values, however, there is a way of measuring values that is used in over 100 countries and for many diverse objectives, for example: helping organisations to understand their people and transform their culture; helping service providers to understand their customer needs and how to connect with them; and helping individual leaders understand their impact on others.

We can look at smart meter data where it’s available to get a better sense of patterns of demand, critical to understanding how water is used in the home. But what about further up the chain though? How do we think about the wider system of water consumption?

How do we understand for example, what influences water consumers’ choices about purchasing products that use water? If mandatory water labelling is introduced for water consuming products in the near future, how do we know that consumers will choose these products over their alternatives?

Using evidence in our efforts to save water
It’s amazing that we are considering interventions to help reduce water consumption, without having a structured and tested way to better understand consumers first. Imagine how much more effective we would be if, before we spend more effort to reduce consumption, we take the time to properly measure people’s values and understand their needs.

So let’s bring this back to my toilet. What I really valued about that purchase was the ability to make a choice that met my needs and I was prepared and able to pay a little extra for the privilege. Interestingly, exactly the same toilet will reduce a metered water bill, helping improve affordability for customers – once you get past the significantly higher purchase price.

Imagine what other tailored messages, services and products we could share with consumers if we understood what they valued, based on their needs?

Tailoring services, products and messaging to consumers can go beyond traditional customer segmentation approaches by measuring people’s values to understand their needs better, so we can figure out what’s driving their behaviours. Once you can unlock that, there’s a huge opportunity to create effective interventions that will ultimately influence their behaviour, even if it is the secondary effect of helping them save space in their new under-stairs bathroom.

By adding the most relevant analytical insight into our understanding of personal values and needs we can move beyond hopeful behaviour change campaigns that don’t succeed the way we hoped, and move towards sustained reductions in water demand.

Our mission at AxiaOrigin
This is something we are really passionate about at AxiaOrigin and we love helping organisations get to know their consumers better and ultimately meet their needs. This is one of the ways through which we work to achieve our company mission of creating a more resilient world. If you want to find out exactly how we could help you measure what your customers need, do get in touch.


Niki Roach | Co-founder