Category Archives: Societal change

How long does it take to go sustainable (part 3)

This is now becoming a recurrent theme.  What does it take to encourage someone to ‘Go sustainable’?  The last time I posted about this I said that it was about a year.   I think that might actually be bit optimistic (i.e more like 2 years), but then that’s because I now have a better idea of what I think needs to happen in that year (or two) based on a conversation with people from the Finance Lab at WWF and the System Innovation work I’m helping Forum with.

What you get if you put 'system change' into Google Images (pt1)

What needs to happen is for a person to undergo a ‘personal transformation’.  And the reason for this is because the ‘system’ needs to be transformed.  (By ‘system’ I mean the current economic and social system which is geared for unsustainable growth.  A new ‘system’ would be a brand new thing that enabled 7 billion of us to live sustainably on the planet.)

This direct link between personal and system transformation makes intuitive sense to me.  The current system is bound by inertia and ‘the way things have always been done’.  It therefore takes a great effort to change this.  As a result, it’s fairly naive to expect people to go against the grain of the prevailing ‘system’ and be motivated to change  unless they themselves have changed.  They will have had to have changed so much that they are not only able to see the limits of the current system and their place within it, but also able to see what changes are required and able to affect those changes.  This requires a dramatic shift in values, identity and motivation.  Noting short of a ‘personal transformation’.

What you get if you put 'system change into Google Images (pt2)

Now, maybe you just need 5% of the population to do this?  Or maybe 10%? or 20%?  What’s the minimum number of people who need to undergo a personal transformation in order to actually change the system?  And who are those people?  To talk the language of ‘Occupy’, does it need to include the ‘1%’?  If so, how the heck do you do that because they’re the ones with the most vested interest in keeping the current system just as it is.  Or is that another one of those pesky ‘assumptions’?!

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How to get more people to act sustainably? Don’t talk about sustainability.

Here’s a very good, clear articulation of how to get more people act in a more sustainable way.

Caroline Fiennes of GlobalCool breaks people into three groups (called Value Modes) based on their broad motivations:

First group. People who care about things that are quite proximate to them.   Their primary concern is the safety and security of myself, family and nation.  Like rules and big into community.

Second group.  Primarily driven by the esteem and respect of others and therefore need to demonstrate their success.  So, big into fashion and social networks.

Third group.  Primarily interested in their intellectual and ethical imprint.  Interested in ideas and others even if they’ve never met them or are never likely to meet them.

So, who does the existing sustainability narrative talk to?  The third group and the third group only, of course.  It’s effectively missing out two-thirds of the population.  Talking about glaciers melting and people on the other side of the world just doesn’t connect those in the other two groups based on what they value.  They don’t really listen.  So, what to do?  She goes onto to give a couple of great examples of health advertising – e.g. communicating that you shouldn’t take Crystal Meth because it ruins your teeth is more appealing for people for whom appearance is important (the second group) than talking about how addictive it is.

Her point, which is obvious but very well made, is that you need to talk to people about what they care about in a way that engages with them as a means to do what you want (the obliquity strategy).  The health people don’t care what they need to say in order to get you to not take Crystal Meth, just that you don’t start taking it.  They’re happy not to talk about health in order to get people to be more healthy.  As she puts it – the important thing isn’t why you act in the way they what you, just that you do act.

Taking this to sustainability  an example of an ‘Accidental Environmentalists’ are kids who want to go to school on their micro-scooters because this is more fun than being in a car.  This has lead to an appreciable drop in car journeys in some areas of London.  You would never say to them that what they are doing is ‘green’.  But it is.

Commercial marketers have known this forever – they never talk about their agenda (we want to make more money) they just talk about your agenda – ‘You want to be popular?  Buy our product’.  And in doing so, we make more money.

She gives a bunch more examples and there’s loads more good stuff on their website, but in summary – to get more people to act sustainably, don’t talk about sustainability.  Simple really.

Occupy St Paul’s (sorry, London)

Went and spent a couple of hours down there last week – never been to a protest before.   It’s a really interesting, well-organised space with the tents and the people who stay in them (not always overnight or so it seems!) and then loads of people milling about – be it tourists or workers on a break.  I ended up having a long conversation with a chap who believed the fundamental issue was Fractional Reserve Lending (something I know a little about from the course and from the remarkable film in this earlier post) as well as a Swedish couple, one of whom had done some work with the IMF.  So, there are high-calibre people are hanging out down there.

As someone from a communications background, the main thing I took from the experience was a lack of understanding of what they want.  You get no clear idea of what ‘success would look like’ (to use that phrase).  For example, one banner says ‘Capitalism IS crisis’, another says ‘This is not an anti-capitalism movement’.  Perhaps the most frequent thing you see is ‘We are the 99%’ – referring to the fact that the other 1% have all the money.  I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that?  Now, maybe it’s too difficult to compress what the movement is into a soundbite and to do so is to deny the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in.  But, I would suggest, if they want to engage more people more fully, some sort of clarity of what they stand for/what they want etc would be of benefit.  By doing this, they might be able to garner more support as more of the population will more easily be able to understand that the issues they are protesting about.

As a footnote to this, I stopped by on a couple of days ago and the main banner has changed to ‘What Would Jesus Do?’  Which is kind of better in that they have understood that the protest has a moral edge to it and that they’re right outside St. Paul’s.  BUT, given all the press about whether they should move on and the Dean resigning over this, the ‘Jesus’ banner could easily be construed in the context of whether Jesus would let them stay and protest, rather than what would Jesus do in relation to the inequality in the banking system and economy which I would understand to be closer to the point they are trying to make.

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How long does it take to go sustainable? (part 2)

In this previous post I came to the conclusion that it takes a minimum of a year for someone to ‘go sustainable’.  This is because this is how long it’s taken me and I would regard myself as highly-motivated to do so – I’m doing the MSc and have LOTS of conversations about it.

It’s a fairly demoralising realisation – as that seems a long time in our short-termist society, but knowing the scale of the task is a great thing to know.

Further evidence for the this One Year Hypothesis come via a great conversation I had with Morag Watson at WWF. She talked about the excellent Natural Change programme that they’ve run in Scotland.  They describe it as follows:

The Natural Change Project was developed by WWF Scotland as a new and innovative response to the challenge of sustainability and to the growing evidence that current environmental campaigns are not resulting in the depth of behaviour change necessary to address this challenge. The project drew together seven diverse individuals from the business, charitable, arts, public, health and education sectors in Scotland. All were selected on the basis of being excellent communicators who were influential in their sector, but not particularly environmentally aware.  The purpose of the project was to encourage this group to think deeply about sustainability, to communicate through their social and professional networks and to share the changes in their thoughts and attitudes more widely through the forum of internet blogging.

They spent a total of 16 days together over the course of a year or so, a year that included a lot of shared conversations and thinking all grounded in trips to the wonderful area of Knoydart.  The group experienced some  some dramatic changes in the values and behaviours of the group.

Relating this to how you can communicate (or ‘engage’) with people, you broadly have 2 polar opposite options ‘Shallow and Many’ (mass advertising) or ‘Deep and Few’ (group therapy, for example).  Natural Change provides me with additional evidence to my own experience that the ‘Deep and Few’ option is the ONLY option that will work in order to make the necessary societal change to get people to change to be more sustainable – a deep, lengthy process in involving small groups of people.  This is because I agree with the Common Cause work in that the consumerist mindset and the extrinsic values associated with it are instilled in our society and within us from the day we’re born.  To get people to ‘go sustainable’ requires that they recognise and value intrinsic values instead of extrinsic.  This is obviously a big deal because it requires a basic rewiring in people’s heads as to what’s important – this sort of change is best done when supported by people undergoing the same transformation.

This all gets me to believe that getting people to turn down their heating or recycle their rubbish will have very little real, lasting effect in encouraging people to become wholly sustainable.  They are just mere actions that have virtually no impact on a person’s values.  An interesting question would be if you could get someone to turn their heating down, recycle more, buy organic, save water, drive less, go vegetarian, not to take foreign holidays etc etc., would they end up having intrinsic values?  Intuitively, I don’t think so – these actions are a multitude of ‘shallow’ and I don’t think all of that would add up to ‘deep’.

So, much more to think on with this, but if I continue down this way of thinking, then at least the challenge is clear – how do you do ‘Deep AND Many’?

How long does it take to ‘go sustainable’?

A lot of my posts have been in and around how you can get people to change their behaviour.  In particular, how can you get people to act in a way that is more ‘sustainable’.  To me this usually means buying less stuff or eating less meat.  I’ve been thinking about trying to solve this from an advertising or communications perspective because that’s where my (work) experience lies.  However, I’ve come to realise that thinking of the issue of sustainability through the lens of advertising is this is far too simplistic.

This is because advertising, on the whole, works by trying to encourage you to choose a brand when you are already thinking about buying that category.  So, feel like a pint?  Choose Stella over the others for these reasons.  Need to buy some washing powder?  Then this is why Ariel is the one to buy.

(I know this is a gross over simplication, but when you think about a lot of categories, it’s true – all FMCG, fashion, health and beauty, car insurance etc etc).

So, advertising is typically short form (from posters up to 30′ TV ads) which is proven (sometimes) to encourage people to buy more of a particular brand.  The important thing however is how much of the work the consumer has already done for the advertiser.  For example, the consumer is typically  a) in a ‘consuming’ mindset – they have money in their pocket  b) are in the environment (e.g. shop or online) where you are available c) are in the mood to buy from the category (e.g. after work in the pub, or in the supermarket doing the weekly shop).  As a result, all the advertising has to do is to tip people to buy your brand rather than the competitor, which are likely to be next to them.  It’s pretty simple job really.


Now consider that against communications to try and get people to buy less.  This is going to be far more difficult because it’s about reversing the ‘consuming mindset’.  To get people to consider whether or not they actually need to buy what they are thinking of buying in the first place.  It’s about getting people to value the value of ‘stuff’ and what role it plays in their lives.  As a result, it’s about consumerism and meaning and what’s important etc etc.  To do this is huge task that’s going to take a lot more communication than a 30′ ad or a poster.  So, how long does it take to think like this?

Not 30′, more like a year, I reckon.  This is because that’s how long it’s taken me.  To change the way I think about shopping and eating meat – such that I’ve reduced both by a considerable amount.  And I’ve been thinking about this a lot and talking to people about it a lot.  Now, it might be possible to get people to do it quicker than me – I hope so and I guess that’s the challenge – but the recognition of the time frame it’s taken me has helped me frame the scale of the task that faces us all.  It’s a big task.

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Where are all the artists?

Part of the problem with all this sustainability stuff is that there isn’t a really good version of what a sustainable future looks like.  The majority of the visions of the future are fairly apocalyptic where things turn out worse than they are today.  This kind of vision is run through films like The Day After Tomorrow, or Avatar which portrays our negative relationship with nature.

So, it seems that we need a bit of positivity to help counter the negative view and give us something to aim for.  And it seems that artists should be part of the answer.  On this, Alain de Botton talks about artists being able to come up  the words and images that to make visible and important the most abstract and impersonal.  So, they can envisage a positive world that can be.  This reminds me of Andy Warhol who said that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes back in 1968.  And it came to pass that we had Michelle McManus and now have Cheryl Cole.  This is the prescience of the artist.  On this, I heard an interview with Bob Geldof.  He was talking about music and the ability of great musicians to sense what people are conscious of before they are aware of it.  The musician makes a record based on this feeling and when released, it puts into words and music what the people were thinking of and becoming an important record for that reason.

So, where are the artists when it comes to sustainability?   Where are the positive songs, words and images that bring the issue to life?  Now, it might be that many people aren’t conscious of it yet, so we’ll have to wait.  But, it’s possible that it’s the role of the artist to accelerate the issue into the front of people’s attention.  Back to Geldof and this time, Live Aid.  I think that the stimulus were Michael Burke’s reports from Ethiopia on the BBC News.

Now, in total, there might have been say an hours footage that appeared on the news.  Geldof, the artist, converted that hours footage into the UK’s second best ever-selling single and into one of the most significant musical events of the century in a simultaneous global spectacle that changed our relationship with charity and  raised $150 million on the day.  Not a bad conversion rate in turning something small into something massive.

So, what the sustainability equivalent?  What’s the creative event that really kicks off the public caring about the future of the planet and those that will live on it.  I don’t know, but I reckon it’s not going to be another image of a worried looking polar bear.

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China to wage war with West over Climate Change

Naive thinking or bold prediction……

So, I’ve asked myself recently has been ‘Am I old enough to get by with out having to learn Mandarin?’

Hopefully, the answers ‘yes’ because I’m rubbish at languages, but The Economist has recently brought forward its forecast and has now stated that China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy in 2019.  So, maybe not.

However, maybe this is a good thing as being the world superpower will allow them to save the world.  Literally.

There’s two bits of evidence to suggest that China will save the day. The first is a book called Consumptionomics.

Here’s the radio interview with it’s author.  What’s interesting about it is that it’s written by an Indian Management Consultant based in Hong Kong (rather than someone from LSE or Harvard) and basically he says that China and India cannot mirror the OECD countries in their level of consumption or we’ll run out of planet.  Nothing new there, but he goes on to say that China, with its style of government is in the best place to save the planet and indeed they’re already restricting car ownership.  He also makes some great points that India and China’s idea of what the ‘right path’ is has been determined by the West (i.e. consumption is good) and it’s time for the academics in those countries to step up and create their own sustainable future, rather than have their future dictated to them by the West.

This is all interesting stuff, then Tim passed this my way.  It’s an article in Time magazine about China banning ads that promote the luxury lifestyle because it encourages inequality and China’s number one priority is to build a ‘harmonious society’.

So, what does all of this mean?  Well here’s the prediction.  The USA is the current the world’s superpower but there’s only 307 million of them (4.5% of the global population).  A lot of their foreign policy is about protecting American interests and they’ve been pretty good at that.  Now, China has got a population of 1,331 million (19% of the global population).  So, America doesn’t have to worry about what happens at a global scale because they don’t have to think that big.  But China does.  So, if China pursues a sustainable policy now, what are they likely to see when they get to be number 1?  That they’re doing their bit to save the planet (and themselves) and given current trajectory, the US and Europe aren’t. And will China do?  How about ‘force’ the West to do what they say, for the sake of the planet.  Economic or military force, who knows?

That’s my prediction.

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I love recycling. Not yet, but maybe one day.

Went to meeting last week about how to get more people at work to recycle.  So, despite there being bins all over the place for paper, plastic, CD’s, batteries etc, we only recycle about two-thirds of the amount we could.  So, what to do?

There were lots of good ideas about how we could improve the situation – emails, posters, more bins, taglines and a crazy one about a sculpture but the thing that the discussion raised for me was how boring recycling is.

When you buy something you buy it for what’s inside the pack.  So, at work it’s likely to be sandwich, a drink or something from amazon.  It’s the food, the coffee or the book which is the thing you want – it’s like a present that you unwrap and enjoy.  The packaging is just the wrapping and has no value.  You discard it; you throw it away.  This is the direct opposite from what’s inside which you keep.  Even the physicality is interesting in that you hold or consume what’s inside and you throw the packaging away from you.  It’s a negative act.

I once heard a man talk about something similar – about getting people to stop chewing gum.  He was saying that the act of chewing gum is an act of rebellion (semiotically, I think).  It’s to do with movies and teenagers and a lot more probably knowing semiotics.  Anyway, his point was that in order to encourage people to stop chewing gum, you’re not going to have a lot of luck if you tell them to stop chewing gum.   This is because if the act of chewing is an act of rebellion, you’re hardly going to start conforming if someone tells you to stop.

Anyway, back to the point and if recycling is a negative act, the question for me is how do you turn it into a positive act?  How can you take it from being dull, boring and a chore for do-gooders into a fun, exciting thing to enjoy?  Now, maybe this is about getting points and prizes for who can recycle the most, or making the bins interesting and suprising so they play a tune or cheer or give you sweets or tell you a joke when you put something in them.  They’ll be hundreds of ideas to play with but I think the task is to make it the act of recycling the wrapping part of the experience of enjoying the total product – i.e. you enjoy the can of Coke AND you enjoy throwing it in the recycling, rather than one being ‘positive’ and the other being ‘negative’.

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Sustainability. The end, but the means?

I’ve been having a few chats recently about the fact that the sustainability debate, in the UK at least, is confined to a minority.  The sort of person who reads The Guardian, watches Channel 4 and knows that there is social value in being a globally-concerned individual.  That’s all well and good, but whilst they might be the heart and soul of the debate and movement (if it could be called a movement), they’re too small in numbers to make any real difference.  The action has to be in the mainstream.  In terms of media, it has to be with The Sun and ITV1.  The question is, how do you make that happen?  How do you get sustainability to become a mainstream issue?

Government regulation aside, there seem to be two options.  Popularise the existing narrative.  Or change the narrative.  The first option is to make ‘being green’ more popular; more attractive; more socially acceptable.  This is entirely possible, but it hasn’t happened yet – there seems no appetite for it so far, but who’s to say that there will be in future?  However, I don’t see Ant and Dec giving a way an electric car on their new gameshow before sticking up their ‘How To Be Green’ wallchart from the centre pages of The Sun any time soon.  But it might happen.

In thinking about the possibility of being an alternative narrative, it seems important to make a distinction between the means and the end.  At the end of the day, we, as a nation (and a species), need to live in a more sustainable way.  This is the desirable ‘end’.  It’s the ‘means’ to achieve that end that I’m interested in.

To use an analogy – and one that helped get us in this mess in the first place –  is that in the 1950s President Eisenhower’s council of economic advisors stated “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods”.  So, the ‘end’ was an thriving economy based on the production of more ‘stuff’.  How do you make that happen?  There seem to be a number of different ‘means’ that could have been used to achieve this.  It was the 1950’s so you could have created a narrative about it being your duty as an American to buy things in the ideological fight against Communism.  Or you could could create a narrative where people would feel more altruistic by encouraging them to buy bigger and better gifts for friends and relatives.  Or you could create a narrative whereby you can achieve greater personal fulfillment and happiness by buying more things.  It seems that the latter was the primary narrative that was chosen as the ‘means’.  It certainly wasn’t a narrative around ‘please buy more because our economy depends on it’.  So, the means were different to the ends.

So, why, when it comes to the issue of sustainability, should it be any different?

Now, it’s likely that it will be a combination of narratives to help achieve the sustainable end that’s required, but looking beyond the current means = end thinking might move things into the mainstream a little bit quicker.

If you know what those alternative narratives are, you might just help save the world.

10:10’s ad that blew up in their face

Finally got round to seeing the banned 10:10 ad (10:10 being an organisation that encourages people and businesses to cut their carbon output by 10%).  It features a number of ‘real life’ scenes where people (school kids, office workers) are asked to commit to actions that will reduce their carbon footprint. Those that don’t, get blown up with blood-splattering effect. (It’s fairly gruesome, so don’t watch if you think you’ll get upset)

It was written by Richard Curtis and features a bevy of stars, so on paper, it was an easy thing to say ‘yes’ to.  Which is what I suspect happened.

Is it right or wrong though?  Should it have been banned?  It depends on what they were trying to do. If they subscribe to the ‘shock-charity-ad’ school of thought (e.g. babies shooting-up for Barnardo’s) then they’re right on the money.  It got banned and got loads of PR.  Well done.

But was this the right approach?  I doubt it.  I would have thought that they’re objective was to encourage people to change their behaviour and reduce their carbon footprint.  But the ad isn’t really about that.  It’s about people getting blown up and that’s what it will be remember it for.  (In comparison,  the shock in the Barnardo’s ad is directly linked to what the Barnardo’s are campaigning for – protecting children from a less than ideal future).

Again, it’s the thing I keep coming back to – that the Climate Change movement are framing themselves as the heroes (in the ad they all live) and those that don’t subscribe to their point of view as the villains (they literally die).  That is such a poor approach to get people to change – it basically says ‘you’re an idiot and deserve to die if don’t do what I say’.  Okay, the ad might just be able to get away with it if it was laced with black humour, but it’s not. It has no charm.  For those that aren’t buying the Climate Change argument, telling them that they’re stupid is only going to harden their point of view because they already disagree with you.

I think what you need to do is take the time to understand why people aren’t acting in a more sustainable way and work out what you need to say to encourage them to do so.  And what you come up with has to have a clear benefit above and beyond the current action that you are wanting to change.  My suspicion is that those who aren’t currently motivated to change by an environmental message will not be convinced by a environmentally-led message.  The Climate Change movement have run out of road on that one.  So, you’ll need to be more creative in the approach.  It’s back to the VW Fun Factory (on a previous post) for short-term tactical actions, but for more durable behaviour change it’s into the realms of social engineering like the 4-day week.

Whether they thought about any of this before they made the ad, who knows.  But it must have good fun at the shoot!

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