Communicating Sustainability: Creating Concern without Smugness

eco friendly habits

Doesn’t it just bug you that Americans don’t seem to care enough about the environment? After all, it’s our only home, and we need to keep up with the maintenance.

But here’s part of the problem: a lot of people think “greenies” are nuts. And the zealots who scream the loudest for attention are nuts! Not to mention smug, self-righteous, and obnoxious.

We have to do a better job of communicating. But communicating what? Advocating sustainability entails manifold messages.

Environmentalists try to address society as a whole. Eco-conscious individuals (that’s you and I) try to influence family, friends, and neighbors.

Companies that make “green” products want to persuade people to buy them instead of something else.

Some companies list sustainability as a corporate goal, and their officials must communicate its importance to employees, stockholders, and the public.

Why does the basic message about taking care of the environment so often fall flat on its face?

As far back as 1970, someone could write of “hard-pressed conservationists, frightened population experts, [and] exasperated scientists” trying to gain the attention of the public. (Peter A. Gunter, “Mental Inertia and Environmental Decay,” Living Wilderness. Spring 1970.)

Therein lies a large part of the problem. Gunter somehow managed, in one column on one page, to claim that in a hundred years the population would grow so much that it would require every bit of land in the world to make room to put all the people, and that a serious famine would start killing people off before the end of the century.

Other “experts” prophesied in terror about the coming ice age. The warnings have changed in the past 45 years, but the catastrophes predicted today hold out no more credibility.

The message of doom and gloom over climate change would probably not resonate with the general public even if the wildest predictions were more likely true. And unfortunately, more immediate and visible issues like deforestation and a vast plastic junkyard in the oceans don’t resonate, either

Environmentalists therefore must learn to direct attention to problems evident where their audience can see them. They also need to suggest solutions the public can envision benefitting from.

Getting both agreement and motivated action on local issues will not by itself bring about sustainability, but no progress on wider and more complicated issues that require government action or other large-scale cooperation will happen without a motivated public.

Environmentalists have allies in the corporate world, if they’re willing to acknowledge it. Makers of sustainable products (or to be strictly accurate, more nearly sustainable products) need to persuade customers that their products are better than traditional alternatives.

To do so they must blast through at least two huge obstacles. First, the earliest green products sucked, and even though they have vastly improved, they still have a bad reputation. Second, too many companies indulge in “greenwashing,” making phony environmental claims about products that aren’t really green at all.

Some companies have chosen not to emphasize the green benefits of their products. They market them appealing to the same drives, desires, and dissatisfactions as their less green competitors. The environmental benefit of choosing those products might be considerable, but the companies that omit the green part of the message do not advance the cause of sustainability.

Companies that want to advertise that their products are good for the environment face a formidable challenge: to make sustainability seem normal, exciting, and future oriented. While it would certainly help the environment if we could get away from the mentality of consumerism (the notion that the entire economy depends on growth, which depends on waste), hectoring people to stop this, not to buy this or that, not to waste, not to drive a roomy car, etc. completely fails to meet the challenge.

How about making and telling consumers to buy good, solid, well-made products that will last a long time? How about going beyond advertising that a cleaning product doesn’t have bleach to convey how effective it is while being pleasant to use? Windex became successful comparing itself favorably to the stench of ammonia.

More and more corporations have caught on that developing sustainable practices is critical for their bottom line. Even so, it appears that at many companies, employees express greater commitment to sustainability than upper management. Making sustainability a corporate goal requires good communication up and down the line.

Besides communicating with employees, management must often persuade other stakeholders, such as directors and stockholders, that long-term commitment to sustainability benefits the bottom line.

Are you involved in that conversation? Follow these three rules to make the sustainability message more effective:

  • Keep the message short, stripping it to bare essentials.
  • Keep the message uncomplicated; determine whether an elaborate graphic may be more distracting than helpful.
  • Keep the message everywhere. Use every means of communication—the corporate website, articles published either online or in print, emails, graphics—to convey the importance of sustainability to employees, directors, stockholders, and the general public.

(If you are not involved in conversation as a corporate official, you need follow only the first two!)

Employees at companies where upper management has not proclaimed sustainability as an overall business goal have fewer options and greater risk trying to communicate upward. Duke Energy recently pled guilty to federal misdemeanor charges in connection with the 2014 coal ash spill.

It turns out that engineers at the plant where the failure occurred had been trying since 1979 to persuade upper management to use a video camera to inspect the drainage pipe that eventually collapsed. The company had to plead guilty to criminal charges because of repeated refusal to spend about $20,000.

I have found no specific suggestions for how employees can successfully communicate concerns about sustainability to upper management. On the other hand, I have seen the term “managing upward” for years.

It appears that in recent years, employees shape their company’s efforts at sustainability more than in the past. More employees now than in the past consider sustainability important enough to change jobs and accept lower pay if that’s what’s required to work at a company committed to it.

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Whether you’re part of a business or not, you live in a neighborhood. You have family and friends. So live your green life in front of them. Take opportunity to express the benefits you get from it.

No one wants to hear from crunchy, self-righteous scolds who think because they’re green they’re better than everyone else.

But people will always listen to someone who demonstrates by action and cheerful words the rewards of striving to live more sustainably.


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