Sustainability Has A Communications Problem. Here’s 4 Ways To Fix It.

I recently watched a talk by Damon Gameau. He’s the Australian film director who made 2040, a documentary which explores what the future could look like if we started implementing the solutions we have today to live more sustainable lives and heal the Earth.

As he spoke about why he made this film, he captured the problem that the sustainability movement has in getting people to understand and do something about climate change:

“When we keep hearing stories that come with fear and dread and overwhelm, we are being bombarded with negativity.

It activates a part of our brain called the limbic system, which shuts down our pre-frontal cortex — and that’s where we problem solve and think creatively.

We’re causing this widespread paralysis because all we’re hearing is the dread, and it’s very hard to know what to do with that.”

It’s true. How many articles, videos and photos have popped up on your social media about the marine life strangled by plastic, the ever-encroaching oil spills, the burning forest fires, the melting ice caps, the rare species of plants, animals and insects dying out at terrifying rates and the ultimate tipping point we’re about to reach before the damage to our Earth is irreversible?

I see it every single time that I unlock my phone today.

But at this stage, I think it’s foolish to waste time scaring and shaming people about climate change.

The truth is that our hands are forced by unregulated corporations and governments with no effective policies or incentives that enable us to live an equally environmentally, socially and financially sustainable life.

With that said — save the fear and shame tactics for these two.

To everyone else, we need to completely change the way we talk about sustainability.

We need to make people feel not as if they were drops in the ocean, but as the building blocks of what the future could be instead.

To solve this communications problem, here’s four ways that advocates, small business owners, marketing managers, volunteers and others in this space can try to change this conversation.

1. Sustainability is (sometimes) a feature, not a benefit.

As marketers, we know that most people aren’t rational thinkers.

We know that changing people’s core beliefs and attitudes is difficult.

That’s why we don’t really care about all of that; all we care about is changing your behaviour, in whatever way which influences you.

Both producers and consumers driving the sustainable movement need to think more like marketers.

If you’re trying to become a zero-waste workplace and 38-year old IT technician Brad doesn’t care about the turtles, sell him on the fact that investing in a KeepCup = 50c discounts on coffee downstairs.

If you’re trying to plate up more vegan options, focus on the taste, not the reduced livestock methane emissions. Many vehemently non-vegan people regularly enjoy vegan food without being made hyper-aware of it (Oreos, hummus, avocado toast…)

As every marketer likes to say: people don’t want drills, they want holes. They want cheaper coffee, tasty food and whatever else we know they personally desire.

2. Stop pursuing eco-warriorship.

There’s a fantastic quote circulating the web that captures what our mission should be right now on our way towards a sustainable society:

“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

Applying this to communications: if there’s something your audience isn’t realistically able to do for financial or physical reasons, focus on another.

Keep the conversation open through social media — if your customers or audience are struggling to adopt your new product or solution, talk to them about how you can augment and improve it to fit their needs or advise them on how it can work better in conjunction with the rest of their lifestyle.

A great example here are young mothers: products like cloth nappies and rustling up baby food that isn’t pre-packaged in plastic is a huge demand on time, effort and adds another layer of stress about maintaining hygiene and a nutritionally balanced diet for their child.

Here, a brand can provide (or at least point to) expert advice and encourage consumer-to-consumer knowledge sharing by cultivating online communities around their products and services.

Sustainability is a journey, not an overnight transformation. Gate-keeping and guilt-tripping won’t do any favours for us.

3. Explain like I’m five.

As a copywriter, I know that there’s several tricks in breaking complex ideas down into simpler and more resonant terms.

People love similes and metaphors.

They’re more likely to tune into and act on a problem that is directly linked to a clear solution or course of action.

But they hate jargon that excludes them and are indifferent to anything that strays outside their bubble of relevance.

Don’t assume that everybody knows (or is willing to learn) how climate science works, just like how doctors don’t give patients a clinical lecture on how to take care of their body.

Try framing a problem, goal or proposition in an easily digestible, compelling or personally relevant way, such as:

“Plant Trees While You Search The Web.”

Easy to understand and easy to do, Ecosia is a search engine that generates income from your searches to plant trees.

It takes roughly 45 searches to plant one tree; and unlike other search engines, they don’t sell your data to advertisers, they don’t use third-party trackers, all searches are encrypted and anonymised within 1 week, and they are also carbon neutral (of course!)

“In 2050, There Will Be More Plastic Than Fish In The Ocean.”

You’ve probably read this one. This headline instantly creates a compelling (albeit alarming) image of the problem in our mind and has even inspired great initiatives like Greenbatch.

“The Ozone Has A Hole In It.”

While it’s a scientifically inaccurate label for what was really going on in the ozone layer, I still remember the public hysteria surrounding the ozone hole in the early 2000s.

A research paper from 2000 has an interesting take on why this moved so many people:

“The ozone threat encouraged the acquisition of knowledge because it was allied and resonated with easy-to-understand bridging metaphors derived from the popular culture. It also engendered a “hot crisis.” That is, it provided a sense of immediate and concrete risk with everyday relevance. Climate change fails at both of these criteria and remains in a public limbo.”

4. Stay positive.

It is so easy to feel powerless today. Most of us are feeling beaten down, depressed and anxious about the reality we live in.

We need to believe in a future that will be better than today, a vision that we are motivated to work towards — everything that the movie 2040 inspires in our heads.

Without hope, we will start to drag our feet, lay down our arms and bury our heads in the sand yet again. Maybe for the last time.

If you’re somebody who’s working in the sustainability space or is trying to change your lifestyle for the better, ask yourself: what was it that made me want to change?

I’m a writer and strategist that helps entrepreneurs build an authentic brand and grow their business with content marketing.