The value in green

Image Credit: Will Clayton (via Flickr)

Image Credit: Will Clayton (via Flickr)

I think many people would agree that the efforts of environmentalists and so called ‘greens’ to convert the public into carrot growing, solar panel installing, bicycle riding, citizens of the earth haven’t been that successful.

Why isn’t the message, ‘It’s the right thing to do,’ enough to change people’s behaviour? The issue (as it often is in communication) is with the audience.

I recently gave a talk on ‘Communicating Sustainability’ to a group of sustainably minded peers from a community group called Transition Cambridge. I knew when writing the talk that it may be slightly controversial for the audience, but I didn’t expect to create the heated debate that ensued.

After clearly stating that there is no such thing as a ‘general public’ – there are instead lots of different publics – I then explained how important it is to be aware of your audience. I stressed the importance of identifying their motivations, their values, their interests and their prejudices. What caused a stir at the presentation, was the idea that we should accept that many publics do not share the same values; many publics don’t place value in actions that we, ‘the greens,’ perceive as ‘the right thing to do.’ Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh aptly expressed to Joe Confino of the Guardian Sustainable Business blog that ‘they are unable to save themselves from their personal suffering, never mind worry about the plight of Mother Earth’. What motivates the majority of people is a desire to have a nice house, car, wardrobe and social life, not the desire to ‘save the planet.’ Many people are suffering through the recession, either worrying about how they will afford their next meal, or struggling to maintain the lifestyle they perceive as fundamental. Those who adapt their lifestyle to meet the perceived needs of the planet are a minority. To shift this minority into a majority is going to require communication that aligns itself with the needs, motivations and desires of the current majority.

Next I suggested the banning of certain ‘buzz words,’ and the response I received from my peers gave me a rather important insight. I decided to ban the words, ‘green,’ ‘eco,’ ‘sustainability,’ ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ and maybe even ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’ Why? Because these words have developed negative cultural connotations. The publics’ associate these words with an unstylish, pulse eating, essential oil smelling lifestyle that currently sits at the margins of society. They associate these words with having to give up their current lifestyle, their clothes, IPods, cars and holidays abroad. What was interesting was that much of my audience was upset with the idea of getting rid of these words – to them these words were so important, so essential, so significant, because of the meanings they held for them. They had psychological attachments to these words. It revealed to me the importance of language and the variety of meanings and connotations that words can hold, for different publics.

So how does one frame an intrinsically ‘green’ message to appeal to the non-green majority?  The key is to identify what the audience values and then build the communication based on words that hold a positive meaning for that audience.

We could take the company Innocent, as a good example of successful sustainability communication.  Innocent’s aim is to ‘make products that taste good, do people some good and to do good to the wider world too.’ They’re an organisation that is actively developing itself into a sustainable business, but the key to their success is their brand and their transparency.  They have built a brand that adheres to some of the core values that many people hold; the values of having a healthy life and being a good person. The word ‘innocent’, connotes a product that doesn’t contain anything bad, through which the consumer can feel that bit better. The humorous and playful text on their packaging builds a positive and friendly relationship with the consumer and their transparency regarding the quantity of each ingredient in the bottle creates a trust in the brand. And although they are working hard to be sustainable and have a positive impact on the world, they don’t use explicitly green messages that alienate many people. They are also honest about their efforts and about their imperfection as a sustainable business, which aligns with many people’s feelings of wanting to see a more sustainable world, but finding it hard to change. Many more people can relate to a brand that says ‘we’re trying but it’s not easy’, than to one that says ‘we’re totally green, there’s no excuse.’

When communicating to publics about sustainable issues it’s important to consider what makes them tick, what’s important to them and what turns them off and instead, frame a message that isn’t explicitly green but aligns itself with their core values.

Jade Cawthray is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College.



  1. Innocent may have started off with the best intentions but is now over 90% owned by Coca-Cola; I’m afraid that whatever ‘positive’ they do now is a tiny sop compared to the environmental and social destruction wreaked by their parent company. Innocent was started with the very best of intentions but their great branding has become no more than a smear of greenwash for the mighty Coke.

  2. And, I hadn’t realised they had been taken over.
    The other thing I think we need to take from marketing is to accept that there are some people we are never going to reach, some who will only adopt green practices when a sufficient number of others do, and those who are prepared to stick their necks out and start a trend. Until we reach enough of the last group to create a critical mass we will never reach the middle group. Lots of early marketing is designed to reach the trend setters and then followed up by targeting the followers.

    We are not going to reach the followers by hitting them over the head with a larger metaphorical mallet.

  3. While I agree that the Green movement needs an image makeover, there is a danger that the core message gets lost in the re-branding: the fact is that consumerism is unsustainable and at some point people will have to give up their iPods, cars, holidays abroad and generally buying so much stuff. However you dress it up that’s going to be an unpopular message to many people, but absent that core message I’d hesitate to call something “green” at all.

  4. The reaction we often get is that people don’t care or that they are overwhelmed and think they can’t do anything that has an impact and hate to be made to feel guilty.

    So we suggest just doing one thing like switching their bin bags to our ones which degrade in 18mths-2years rather than hundreds of years. We remind them that they are actually preserving their dog waste for years which will still be around for their grandchildren if they don’t use degradable bags which makes them laugh.

    I love this quote from Margaret Mead too:
    “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has”

    I think people need to see what’s in it for them and feel empowered so if you can educate and demonstrate this it will make them feel like they can and are doing something, they can save money, have less of an impact on the environment and on their own health by using less harmful cleaning, laundry, skincare products etc and that it is actually easy and achievable to do in little steps.

  5. I have debated these ideas (mostly with myself) for quite a while. The ability of well-off people to provide themselves with excuses that help them justify not caring about or not acting on environmental issues is simply astounding. I agree we have to accept that this is how people are and that this is a result of culture for each ‘different public’ (well-off or not).
    However, I think real change will be made by changing cultures.

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