Have you noticed that not everyone cares about sustainable living? And even among people who do, a gap sometimes exists between their intentions and their lifestyle choices. It’s not that people who care passionately about green living don’t try to persuade others to join them. But the message too often comes across either as boring or scolding.
Advocating green living effectively might be even more important that living sustainably in the first place. A good message will persuade more people to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.
We all like the idea of progress. Rightly or wrongly, progress seems to involve taking advantage of the latest technological advances. Does that remind you only of spiffy new electronic gadgetry? Viewed over the entire sweep of history, hot running water, central heat, and grocery stores are among the latest technological advances.
One huge political movement these days glories in the name “progressive.” Ironically, its environmental message too often implies that progress is a bad thing. The most vocal ones regard anyone who doesn’t agree with their thoughts on climate change with scorn. Too many of the vegans among them talk and write as if using animal products is an unmitigated evil perpetrated by enemies of the people. What makes them think they can promote sustainable living with that attitude?
Even without the scolding and disrespect, sustainability seems dull and boring the way we too often talk about it. Not only that, but the message often seems to consist of a list of things not to do. Turn off the lights . Don’t use too much hot water. Skip the car and just ride a bicycle. Don’t buy anything new. It’s not sustainable living but bad for the environment. And, of course, all those things have greater perceived value than the reward for giving them up.
Life is tough. Who wants to listen to a message that anyone who cares about convenience, low prices, enjoyment, and maybe even making a living is an enemy of the people who is killing the planet?
A quickie history of the environmental movement
Some progressives seem to think that all our environmental problems come from greedy capitalism.
In fact, since prehistoric times, people have often lived with little regard for how they affected their environment. They thought nothing of dumping trash and sewage in rivers, for example. For most of that time, however, nature was quite capable of absorbing their carelessness and repairing the damage. (Except when they hunted animals to extinction.)
The Industrial Revolution both improved people’s lives and significantly polluted the environment. Nature could no longer keep up.
Large-scale social change for the environment
Then came Earth Day in 1970. It took various environmental concerns and turned them into a mass movement. The leading speakers and writers urged people to become politically active, to demand new legislation, and to pressure industry to clean up its act. But they didn’t give people any ideas for how they could choose a more eco-friendly lifestyle for themselves. That is, they promoted the environment with little attention to sustainable living.
The original enthusiasm for environmental laws and major systemic changes lasted for a little more than a decade and faded. It didn’t help that many prominent Earth Day speakers made bad predictions: an ice age and mass starvation within 30 years.
Focus on sustainable living
But then, 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth made it to the best seller list in 1989. Author John Javna claimed that ordinary people could take simple steps toward a sustainable lifestyle and it would change things. All it would take would be large numbers of people acting on all these simple ideas.
The idea of helping the whole planet by changing personal behavior was brand new. Unfortunately, people bought the book and made only minor changes to their lifestyle.
Javna became so disillusioned that he stopped his own sustainable practices until his teenage daughter challenged him to reconsider. The two collaborated on a second edition of the book in 2008.
Even during the book’s early popularity, critics pointed out that Javna’s ideas were not enough to solve remaining environmental problems. Buying recycled office paper will not stop deforestation, for example.
More large-scale proposals.
The pendulum started to swing back to large-scale initiatives in 1992.
The United Nations established its Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 represented the first agreement of governments worldwide to tackle environmental issues. Other agreements have followed.
Unlike the original Earth Day, they have not gained popular enthusiasm. But they do represent a return to the idea that solving huge problems requires structural change. At the same time, new grassroots organizing tactics have started to renew the activism of the 1970s. In the US, progressives introduced an ambitious Green New Deal in 2019.
Where does this renewed interest in big programs leave personal responsibility? It’s as important as ever. In principle, it’s as practical as ever. Except, as Javna observed, people won’t stick with anything unless it’s easy.
A marketer’s perspective on promoting sustainable living
In 2011, Ogilvie & Mather issued a Red Paper titled Mainstream Green. It sought to help marketers bridge the “green gap” between consumers’ green intentions and their actual behavior. It found that the American population consisted of about 16% “Super Green” people and about 18% Green Rejectors. That left 66% of the population somewhere in the middle.
Unfortunately, the Super Greens tend to regard everyone else with contempt and talk down to them, as if only they care about sustainable living. That majority in the middle comprises a wide spectrum of attitudes. The report divides them equally into “Upper Middle Greens” and “Lower Middle Greens.”
The Upper Middle Greens basically agree with the Super Greens about the seriousness of the environmental crisis. It just doesn’t motivate them the same way. No amount of alarmist rhetoric, shaming, or guilt trips will make them become Super Green.
Upper Middle Greens will buy eco-friendly cleaning and personal care supplies. They will conserve water and energy, avoid polluting, and even change their diet. They care about sustainable living, but only up to a point. They consider the more extreme suggestions too expensive or too inconvenient.
Super Greens who are not vegan, for example, will forego eggs if they’re only available in Styrofoam cartons. They’ll willingly pay more for eco-friendly brands. Upper Middle Greens probably will not. They are probably not vegan and less likely to make choices based on perceived cruelty to animals. And they are much less likely than Super Greens to feel guilty about occasional lapses.
The Lower Middle Greens reject most of the rhetoric around climate change as mere hype. They have little interest in preserving the planet for future generations. They will adopt green behaviors if they can see personal benefit. For example, they will live green to the extent it saves them money or appears reasonably convenient.
Successfully promoting sustainable living requires a message that makes it seem attractive, beneficial, and above all, normal.
Personal responsibility vs policy messages
Researchers at Georgia State University surveyed 2,000 people to see how they responsed to messages about climate change. Some saw messages advocating using less water and other small sacrifices. Others saw messages about policy issues such as fuel standards, world hunger, or deforestation.
The group that saw messages about personal responsibility was less receptive to the idea that humans cause climate change. They were also less willing to reduce their emissions or express support for climate-friendly politicians.
The group that saw messages about issues responded more positively to questions about climate change. Publishing their findings in October 2020, the team noted the same effect across the political spectrum.
People don’t want other people telling them what to do, especially if it involves any sacrifice of convenience or money. And for the most part, they don’t believe that their lifestyle choices make any difference to the environment.
Steps to a successful sustainable living message
So one of the first steps to a more effective sustainable living message is to demonstrate the power of the crowd. If one person takes a step to reduce water use by a gallon a day, it doesn’t seem to matter. If 100,000 people make the same choice, it adds up.
Even more important, though, the message must convey some kind of personal benefit. That can be as tangible as saving money or as intangible as self-satisfaction.
For example, when Copenhagen, Denmark wanted to reduce automobile traffic, it built infrastructure to make biking safer and more convenient. Then it marketed bicycling as something sexy and glamorous. It never said a word against cars or drivers. Now, Copenhagen has more bicycles than people—five times as many bicycles as cars.
And when polled in 2010 why they rode bicycles, people mentioned it was cheaper, healthier, faster, and more convenient than cars. Only a small number of respondents mentioned environmental benefit.
All of the studies I have cited stress that a successful sustainable living message normalizes green behavior. It makes it look attractive, fun, and effective. It doesn’t scold or dwell on negatives.
So tell your friends to buy good quality products they can enjoy for a long time, not make them feel guilty about buying cheap things. Encourage them to become involved in some aspect of sustainability that they really care about instead of nagging them about what matters less to them. Show them by your own life how a sustainable lifestyle can be rewarding.
By the way, we can’t shop our way out of our environmental problems, but what we choose to buy matters. I always include a selection of eco-friendly books and products at the end of these posts. And I always try to choose useful and attractive ones that you will be happy to own and use. So scroll down and explore!
Before and After the First Earth Day, 1970 2d ed / David M. Guion (Allpurposeguru, 2020)
How people came to believe that individual choices could save the Earth / Kate Yoder, Grist. January 16, 2020Mainstream Green / Graceann Bennett and Freya Williams (Ogilvie & Mather, 2011)
Messaging Sustainability: From Boring to Cool / Soraya Darabi, Sustainable Brands [January 10, 2014]
Want some eco-friendly tips? A new study says no, you don’t / Kate Yoder, Grist. October 20, 2020
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Before and After the First Earth Day, 1970: A History of Environmentalism, Its Successes and Failures, 2d ed