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SXSW Eco: Replacing Unsustainable Language To Tackle Climate Change

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CLIMATE CHANGE COMMUNICATION
Lynne Peeples

The average 'Walmart mom' may not necessarily care about a reduction in waste or greenhouse gas emissions achieved by removing the dimple from the bottom of a wine bottle, said Brooke Buchanan, the multinational retailer's director of communications for sustainability. "But if we can translate that into cost savings, the message is heard loud and clear."

In this case, the welcomed message is a price rollback of 21 cents on a bottle of Oak Leaf merlot.

During a panel at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, Buchanan and other experts discussed the importance of language when talking about environmental sustainability and climate change. The consensus: The conversation has fallen short, and needs to be refocused on how the issues affect people personally.

As Jeff Nesbit, executive director of Climate Nexus, put it: "We don't need to save the planet; the planet will survive without us. We need to save us."

"We have failed to convince the general public that we need to worry about the environment or climate," added Andrew Hutson, project manager for corporate partnerships at the Environmental Defense Fund, and a member of the panel. "We failed partially because of how we talk about it."

In fact, "sustainability" itself is probably not part of the ideal vocabulary, according to the panelists. Neither is "climate change" or "environmental." Even "green" is now so ubiquitous, they suggested, that it has become meaningless.

"Cost savings" may also not be the best phrase to use, according to Hutson. "If you talk about how much money is saved," he said, "someone will not be as likely to act as if you talk about the money wasted." Similarly, Hutson suggested that air pollution should be described as a fight to not lose clean air rather than one to create more clean air.

As Nesbit told the standing-room only crowd, "story-telling matters." And these narratives need to be understandable, emotionally accessible and specifically tailored for each audience.

"Some people are inspired by doom. But a lot are turned off by that message," Kelly Rigg, executive director of the Global Campaign for Climate Action, said during a separate panel discussion on Tuesday.

Religions, cultures, regions and affluence, among other factors, can all influence how someone receives a message, panelists said.

This lack of a one-size-fits-all frame adds a new dimension to an already formidable challenge: How do you get through to everyone at the same time?

While the panelists offered no easy answer, they provided a few strategies to consider, starting with some up-and-coming words and phrases that may prove more appealing -- "community," "green jobs," "aspiration" and "nostalgia" -- or at least more emotional -- "fear" and "health risk."

"Do not lead with ideas that threaten people's core beliefs, values, or the understanding of their lives," Hutson recommended. "They turn off when they hear that. People seek information and interpret facts that correspond and confirm their existing beliefs."

Environmentalists themselves are often accused of "preaching to the choir." Even Buchanan acknowledged that it "seems like we're just communicating with each other."

"You have to talk to the people that may speak a different language," Hutson added. "It's not enough to be right. You have to tell a story in a compelling way to the right audience."

The audience should include people who may not have traditionally been part of the debate, suggested Robin Rather, CEO of Collective Strength Inc., a sustainability consulting firm. Discussions tend to revolve around cities and suburbia, for example, yet residents of rural communities are just as important in tackling climate change, Rather said during a separate Wednesday panel. She recalled a visit with her "redneck cousins" -- who "drive 550 pickups with gun racks" -- in which the topic of conversation turned to which fuel efficient cars are the most manly.

"They aren't doing it to green up the planet," she said. "They have strong economic motivations." The $600 an average person spends owning a car can be especially burdensome for low-income families.

What's more, it would be "political suicide" not to consider rural populations, added Rather, noting that these communities house a number of elected officials, including many of the politicians who are "not driving the decisions that we need to be making," she said.

In the end, the most important thing is to simply start talking. "In order to persuade, you need to have a conversation," Hutson said. "We can't even say 'climate' in Washington right now. We need to change that."

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