Innovator Insights: Want to know how to sustain environmental change?

What is needed to get people to actively support environmental sustainability?

“Marketing,” says Kevin Davies, Ashoka American Express Emerging Innovator and founder of Green Start, an organization committed to reducing waste in Calgary, Canada and educating Calgarians about the impact of their personal decisions on the environment around them.

“I believe that marketing could well be the missing piece of the puzzle. I believe in marketing as a force for good.”

It’s not enough to warn people that the effect we’re having on the environment is both ongoing and irreversible, a message carried by recent United Nations reports, using some of the strongest language yet, Davies argues. Fear rhetoric isn’t working.

“When we present the issue to the tune of ‘the world is ending,’ we might inspire action from a few superhero types, but that approach is likely to inspire inertia for the vast majority of people,” he says.

“The discussion around sustainability says, ‘Do it for your grandchildren.’ But the reality is, we have to help people realize they need to do it for themselves. Climate change is an issue that will manifest in our generation.”

Getting the majority of people to adopt a mindset of environmental sustainability requires a different kind of communication, Davies believes. “We have the design expertise necessary to create significant solutions,” he explains.

“What we need now is buy-in, and buy-in doesn’t come from facts alone. Human beings are emotional, time-pressured and social, so we tend to make decisions on snap judgments that come from associations, rather than scientific information.”

He continues, “As a culture, we associate sustainability with a cause that is too large, too far away, and too pretentious for the everyman,” Davies said. “People believe their actions make no difference, or that if they start to take action, they’ll be labeled hypocrites for not taking all actions simultaneously. We’ve made it impossible to start.”

This is the kind of thinking that inspired Green Start to go beyond simply providing customers with recycling services. “What differentiates Green Start is that we offer tracking, unique to each client, in the form of a monthly Impact Report.” These quantify factors such as carbon dioxide reduction, landfill conservation, and natural resource preservation. “Our Impact Reports are scientific, but they are primarily human.”

What does that mean? “We are bringing the cause down to actionable scale, and shifting the associations from guilt and responsibility to the celebration of progress and growth.”

Acknowledging the time pressure that so many of us feel, Impact Reports distill information into quick and beautiful infographics. Recognizing the social aspect of human nature, the reports allow participants to identify with a city-wide cause. And, by helping individuals recognize that they achieve success in seemingly small actions, the reports create moments of delight and the motivation to continue.

So far, these successes include conserving 12,000 cubic feet of land, preventing more than 54,000 pounds of air pollution, and preserving more than 2.4 million liters of water. Seeing and understanding this progress has transformed Calgarians into advocates for sustainable change, because they see the difference that their individual actions can make.

“Adopting modern marketing practices makes the field of sustainability more scalable,” Davies says. It combines an individual’s desire for altruism with self-interest, and moves the conversation away from fear and sterile facts that are buried in intimidating documents.

“The easiest thing to say about environmental protection would be, ‘You don’t have a choice’,” Davies says. “The smartest thing to say is that altruism and self-consideration aren’t mutually exclusive, and that the greatest results are often found in a harmony between the two.”  

Kevin Davies was part of a group of 45 leading social innovators from North America that took part in the 2014 American Express Emerging Innovators Boot Camps. Want to hear more from the innovators like Davies? Check back here for more innovator insights, and follow #emerginginnovators and @changemakers.