Reinventing Language: The Cornerstones of Talking Sustainability

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Language is an interesting device. It helps us communicate with each other, share our ideas, thoughts, feelings. Yet, more often than not, all of the above get lost in a morass of misinterpretations and misunderstandings. The concept of sustainability isn’t safe from this either.

It’s easy to overuse the S-word these days. The website Ad Age for instance picked sustainability as the “jargoniest” jargon words of the year 2010. As everyone scrambles to be part of the green bandwagon, we’re running the risk where the word sustainability becomes a cliché with vague or no real content. The latest National Geographic global consumer Greendex demonstrates quite well the general misperceptions of consumers about sustainability. Most respondents of the survey believed that only a small proportion – two out of ten individuals – constitute as green consumers, yet over half of the respondents identified themselves as part of the “niche” green consumer group.

The road to hell is often paved with good intentions and the above would be a textbook example of just that. Even if we want to do our best to live sustainably (because it’s “the thing” to do), we have difficulty in identifying the lifestyle choices that being green entails, partially because there is so much information saturating the market that we just don’t know what (or who) to believe. So often, in our efforts to be good earth citizens, we become victims to greenwashing instead. Think about it yourself – how often have you bought a product covered in Möbius strips, happy dolphins and percentages promising high post-consumer content, and given yourself a mental pat on the back?

Research carried out among American citizens described the above mismatch of consumer actions and intentions as the “green gap”.  The good news is that according to the same paper, even the infamously wasteful American nation’s green intentions could be transformed into sustainable action through inspiring and engaging communication strategies. The question then becomes: what are these strategies and how can one inspire change through communication? A number of speakers tried to answer the question at the workshop on awareness-raising at the European Resources Forum 2012 in Berlin.

Morten Jastrup, senior analyst at Copenhaguen-based Sustainia opened his presentation in Berlin by saying: “I was interested to hear about the workshop called “When will they start listening to us?” thinking to myself: “Well, maybe when we start speaking the language they understand, they will start listening!”

So if it comes down to it, what would this common language sound like? What would be its foundations? We combine here what we’ve learnt at the European Resources Forum with our own suggestions to come up with some basic building blocks of the language of sustainability.

1. Quality of life should be the focus of sustainability discussions.

Mr. Jastrup opened the panel discussion with a S. Exupéry quote: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

That is, instead of asking people to save the environment, one should inspire them to change their lifestyle by making the link obvious. Sustainability so far has mainly been a technical, science-based prescription for people to “do good” for the planet. Unfortunately, little has been said on how sustainability affects our health, free time and emotional well-being. First and foremost, sustainability should mean healthier air and food, more quality time and happiness to individuals. Instead of asking “Do you care for the planet?”, campaigns ought to put the question “Do you want to have tastier, healthier food/more quality time/more experiences with your family/enduring goods/cleaner air/etc?”.

As Mr Jastrup explained,  “I think sometimes people get fed up with sustainability and words like green and climate and so on. (…) So maybe we should not talk so much about greenhouse gases and CO2 but talk about how we create quality of life. We know what people want: they want health, they want time with their children and they want to live in a rather secure world. That’s actually sustainability.”

However, aspiring to sustainable lives is not enough in itself. People need to be able to afford and identify the alternatives that let them lead sustainable lives.

2. This is why sustainability should have a practical and simple language that presents accessible solutions to all.

Putting too much emphasis on threats, risks and other factors that are associated with fear, guilt and mere altruism is proven to be counterproductive. Naysaying is not going to get us far either: psychology research shows that individuals are only motivated to act if they see hope for change.

Marilyn Mehlmann, General Secretary of Global Action Plan International, who has a background in psychology, also called for a more reality-based approach and no more scaremongering. “People do not really want to destroy the planet, so I don’t agree with those who think that we need to change our values. Instead, we should build new habits that allow us to live our values.”

Mr Jastrup was also talking about the importance of a “new type of communication” that identifies accessible solutions for everyone and reaches out to those who do not react to the doom and gloom message conveyed about sustainability. “A big pillar of our work is about identifying and making people aware about sustainable solutions that are already out there,” he answered when asked about practical examples. As he explained, Sustainia collects practical green solutions from all around the globe with the potential of being used by many people in a publication called Sustainia 100.

3. Last but not least, sustainability should be a fun and cool message.

“Resource efficiency is a terribly boring message,” pointed out Marilyn Mehlmann, adding that sustainability is communicated very often in a boring and impersonal way to the public.

Interactive social media presence and great visual appeal are two elements that could make the public discussions more fun. They certainly distinguish Sustainia from the more orthodox preachers of sustainability. Mr Jastrup explained:  “Some people say that we try to make sustainability sexy. I’m not too sure about that but if people see what we do like this – it’s fine by me.” The site of Sustainia definitely proves that looks actually matter with its eye-catching design and bright colors that let us visualize our sustainable future.

Of course, playing the celebrity card is another great way to catch the eye of the public. The organization’s flagship initiative is the award ceremony for the most innovative idea of the Sustainia 100 where Arnold Schwarzenegger was presenting this October along with EU Commissioner Connie Hedegaard.

As Mr Jastrup put it, “It is this sort of thing – like creating an Oscar show for sustainability –where we believe that there is a potential for people to say, ‘Well, this is fun! Sustainability is something that I would like to associate myself and my company with because it is not doom and gloom. It is actually a way I can live, feel better about myself and get better solutions for the problems I experience daily and be sustainable.’”

So one thing we learnt is that more information on sustainability does not mean more awareness and a larger shift towards green consumption. Sustainability has to become the Zeitgeist by being desirable, achievable and trendy.

The challenge arises from the fact that in many cases, we still approach sustainability in the spirit of the pioneering 1987 Brundtland-definition (“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.)

In other words, we present it as a vague, diluted, restrictive concept that lacks a practical dimension.

For this reason, “green” information campaigns have divergent outcomes: sometimes higher awareness, in other cases greenwashing, confusion and even more conception barriers. Only if sustainability is an attractive message, explained to people as the accessible option to live a healthier and more balanced life, can behaviour change become possible.

Once again, business is taking the lead in re-thinking the word of sustainability. They are digging deeper into behavior change research and experimenting with interactive consumer programs. SC Johnson launched for instance an extensive behaviour change program this summer shortly after Unilever’s success with the Five Levers of Change and the introduction of NikeFuel to those who love being tracked and challenged. It is time for policy-makers to see the light and follow in their footsteps.

In short, sustainability has to be reinvented as a cool message, otherwise we will see no behaviour change.

This article is based on an interview with Morten Jastrup from Sustainia.

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