Why ‘Green’ Isn’t Working: How Do We Reach the Other Half?

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Published on October 28th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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A few weeks ago I attended a “Green Festival” in Washington, D.C., tagged as the world’s largest environmental expo. As I walked around, I kept thinking about who this festival was really meant for. Everyone in attendance chose to go to (and pay to get in) this event. These are people who are already invested in the environment.

So, was anyone really learning anything new?

And if festivals, lectures and the like aren’t the answer, how do we reach the people who just aren’t yet thinking about “being green”?

My first solution: Don’t call it “green.”

Don’t Call It Green

I probably shouldn’t say this as the green living blogger on Cool Green Science, but I don’t like the term “green.” At least amongst mixed company.

You know who I mean: the people who roll their eyes when they just hear the word “organic” or talk about how vegan food must taste like tree bark while chowing down on perfectly vegan French fries or cookies.

The problem is that anyone can use the word to describe just about anything. And that leads to overuse (which the term is dangerously close to reaching) and confusion. And if people don’t think the word means anything, it could lead people to just give up entirely on trying to make an effort.

And who can really blame them? According to environmental marketing firm TerraChoice, the average number of “green” products on the shelves of big-box stores almost doubled between 2007 and 2008. Their 2007 study on “greenwashing” found that, of 1,018 products surveyed, all but one product made claims that are demonstrably false or risk misleading consumers.

What we really need is to stop relying on linguistic shortcuts when providing details about the benefits of a particular product, service or lifestyle choice.

Set a Good Example…

People are bombarded with messages all day long, and we have mostly learned to tune them out. But one thing people still notice is the other people immediately around them. So if 75 percent of shoppers are carrying tote bags, the other 25 percent might start to wonder what the benefits are. And if drivers see you happily zipping along in the bike lane while they are stuck in traffic day after day, they might eventually warm up to the idea of alternative modes of transportation.

So proudly carry around those reusable bags, and share with your friends a tip about the delicious apples at the local farmer’s market.

…but Don’t Be a Schmuck

Scolding people into making personal changes never works. They have to want to do it, and to do it for their own reasons.

So when you talk to other people about what you’re doing for the environment, leave them out of it. Be available to answer questions and help them when they are ready, but let them reach out to you. They’ll be glad they have their very own non-judgmental environmental guru to turn to.

Help Make Things Easier

One of the best parts about the Green Festival was the trash situation. Each “trash can” was really three clearly marked receptacles: trash, recycling and compost. In addition, every plate, cup, bowl, napkin, utensil and sample cup was 100% biodegradable and could be put in the compost bin with food scraps.

If only it were this easy in our daily lives.

To really get everyone on the right track, the “green option” has to be the easiest option, or very close to it. So help make doing the right thing the easier thing: advocate for curbside recycling programs, start a local carpooling group, or volunteer to make changes at your office, such as creating a bike room, having an in-house composting bin, and installing double-sided printing options.

Celebrate the Free Stuff

If there was one thing that was clear at the Green Festival, it’s that people (myself included) love free samples.

Many people still think that “being green” is expensive, but there are so many things that people can do that are eco-friendly and low cost that you can shout about:

  • Walking more and driving less. Save on gas and get some exercise at the same time.
  • Replacing your light bulbs with CFL bulbs. CFL bulbs cost a little more than incandescent bulbs, but they last up to 10 times longer while using about one-fourth of the energy, according to the Energy Department.
  • Eating more vegetarian meals. Beef averages $3 per pound in U.S. cities and boneless chicken breasts cost about $3.40 a pound. On the other hand, dried legumes and rice are less than $1 a pound.
  • Shopping (and eating) in season. Steering clear of strawberries and melons in the winter will not only save a lot of dough, you’ll avoid having your fruit shipped around the world.
  • Shopping online. No, not online stores, but on sites such as Craigslist or Freecycle, where you can find secondhand goods — everything from furniture to house wares to baby clothes — for really cheap or often completely free!

I obviously don’t have all the answers, but these are the ways I plan to reach out to people in my life. How do you plan to reach out?

(Image credit: Somewhat Frank/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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Comments: Why ‘Green’ Isn’t Working: How Do We Reach the Other Half?

  •  Comment from TimB

    Great article. I feel right now that we are preaching to the choir, and quite frankly, I think even they are getting tired of it.

    What we should be doing is reaching out to those that either:
    1) don’t get it,
    2) do get it, but don’t care,
    or 3) do get it, care, but can’t be bothered.

    Each will need different strategies, but all need to be engaged in non-confrontational ways.

    T

  •  Comment from Eco-Friendly

    Great message. I attended the Green Festival out here in Seattle and was thinking the same thing.

  •  Comment from Clay Bolt

    Well said, and so true. It’s definitely time for recalibration!

    Clay

  •  Comment from Dave

    I have had the best success in moving people toward sustainability by taking them to see successful, local examples of sustainability in action. For example, I have gotten a neighbor and even the city to use an eco-lawn mix instead of regular grass by taking them to see the mix in use at a business a few miles away.

    If there are no local examples, often you can become the local example.

    People seem to relate to and adopt the concept better when they can see it in action in their local area, and ask questions.

  •  Comment from Andrew Francis

    Great posting…good basics. I agree with the small, local approach, and the mention of setting an example as far more powerful than preaching about things that most people feel powerless to change. The bigger issues (air-travel) will change after we change our consciousness, and hopefully it won’t be too late. I agree also with the fact of ‘greenwashing’ not helping the matter. It gives skeptics fodder for their skepticism… and should be criminal. As for not eating strawberries in winter – I totally agree with this – as much as I like strawberries. We compromise by doing so – we should enjoy them when we can get them locally. Winter = hot soups, root vegetables, dried beans, the apples that store deep into winter (when stored right), baked items, pastas… canned goods… Really – this was about what each of us can do, not about the best way to solve the overall problem.

    Flying moves a ton of material 1 mile at about 32,000 BTU energy use, while trucks move it at under 4,300 btu – and trains at 370 btu/ton/mile. So we have fewer trains than anywhere in the developed world. BTU energy use corresponds relatively constantly to carbon emissions relative to the vehicle’s efficiency at burning the fuel.

    You asked how we plan to reach out? Vegetarian for 17 years, and I hang my laundry out – it’s a flag to show the neighbors that what my mother has done for the last 60 years (and still does) is still possible.

  •  Comment from Anonymous

    Government must viciously enforce care of the earth or its all over. Its far too late to be reasonable.

  •  Comment from Dr. James Singmaster

    Due to just getting an e-mail about TNC’s Planet Change with an empty calling for TNC members to ask the Copenhagen Conference to protect everything living on earth without any kind of program to address how to protect anything, I am commenting here that little steps are not going to do anything to get climate change under control nor will calling for protecting everything. Big steps having much more action for controlling climate change and other environmental problems can be achieved with much greater benefits if TNC people would wake up to some real sustainability thinking.
    The first thing to think about is where are we wasting, perhaps with damage to the earth, something that could be a resource. Our massive ever expanding messes of organic wastes and sewage solids are being allowed in most communities to be dumped or composted so that natural biodegrading of the carbon containing biochemicals lets that trapped carbon get needlessly reemitted as GHGs, mainly carbon dioxide. If those messes were subjected to a process called pyrolysis, about 50% of the carbon gets converted to inert charcoal to remove it forever from getting converted again to carbon dioxide if the charcoal is buried. The other 50% gets expelled as a hot gaseous mix that can be piped through a turbocharger to get some electricity as is done on some cars. Then the cooled mix can be cleaned of some undesirable parts to give a mix of organic chemicals to be refined for a renewable fuel or chemical raw materials for making drugs etc. free of oil. The extra big benefit with using pyrolysis on those messes is that germs, toxics and drugs are destroyed greatly reducing costs for new dumps and especially reducing water pollution problems from escapes of those hazards from dumps. I have many comments about using pyrolysis on those messes on many blog postings especially NYTimes Green,Inc. and Dotearth blogs and you can google my name for more details.
    I call on TNC and its members to start thinking of big action for big results by getting attention to pyrolysis of those waste messes before pollution escaping from them takes lives or destroys some of what TNC members want protected on earth. The most basic point about sustainability ought to be finding how to turn wastes into resources and that is what is being proposed here.
    Dr. J. Singmaster, Fremont, CA
    P.S. Anonymous Nov. 7: If we don’t do things reasonably, nothing will work in the long run, and doing things without reason can lead to total disasters.

  •  Comment from Preston

    As one who has wrote for the “green” movement in the past, your message makes total sense. The word green has become such a cliche that all meaning is stripped from it, thus making it hard to communicate to an audience. While direct action and face to face communication is certainly the best way to get through to people, writing often serves as the means to spread ideas. So i completely agree with you, we need to find new ways to communicate the “green” message so people are more receptive to important ideas.

  •  Comment from Mauricio Torres Madrid (Colombia)

    Great article with a good plan to seduce the non green neighbors and family. Each step make the next a little closer and we continue moving.

  •  Comment from WildPhotos

    Going green is like the disposable or cloth diaper discussion. Green can’t be the same everywhere it has to be looked at from where you are and which resource is scarcer in your area. For us we now have the one bin for everything recyclable method. The amount of former trash now recycled has gone up so our landfill is happy but I wonder if wherever that material actually winds up and has to be sorted by hand is so happy. We recycle computer parts only to find their heavy metals poisoning some third world country. Can we blame microsoft for making us buy new computers to keep running the newest programs? Planned obscelesence keeps the gears of commerce running but green it is not.

  •  Comment from Anastasia

    I also think we need to stop talking about “saving the planet” or “protecting the environment.” Obviously, these are important and true phrases, but I think what will really move the average bonehead toward making sustainable choices is if we say another true thing: “Let’s save people.” Because we’re not going to kill the planet (at least, not right away), but what we are going to do (if we don’t immediately change course) is make it unlivable for the vast majority of humans who will either die when conditions change too much or suffer through an environment that no longer has enough available resources for humans to exist comfortably. So, yes, the planet IS important, but let’s save humans!

  •  Comment from Elena

    ALL efforts to help the environment are doomed to failure unless global (human) population growth is stopped.
    Too many people = ever greater competition with wildlife. In the long run, when resources (water, land, etc) start running out, people will always be the winners. For example, who will ever say that a rainforest should not be destroyed if there is not enough open land to cultivate food for starving people?

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