EDF’s Hutson: ‘We’ve Failed. We’ve Failed to Convince the General Public to Worry About Climate Change.’

One consistent strain of conversation, topic of session discussion, and overall general lament at SXSW Eco was the inability of the green movement to get their message across, to convince people that environmental conservation and climate change are important issues for everyone.

Environmentalists and sustainability experts have been focusing so intently on the upcoming danger, displaying graphs with alarming statistics and trying to browbeat the average Joe into recycling, composting and buying a hybrid vehicle that these savvy NGO executives and even business experts forgot the most important, most elemental rule of messaging: know your audience and tailor your message to them. Morgan Clendaniel, editor at Fast Company, said, “Being right isn’t a message. You still have to frame the message to specific audiences.”

Outside of the warmth, collegial understanding, and like-mindedness of conferences like SXSW Eco, environmental academia, and sustainable MBA programs, it’s a cold, hard world out there. Impending climate change is just one important message that is battling to be heard and internalized by people staring other realities in the face, such as a still-shaky economic environment, a high unemployment rate, healthcare upheaval, low housing values and the rising day-to-day cost of living.

Yale University Program Director Stuart DeCew talked about the culture shock some MBA grads face when they leave the comfort of their school setting and its emphasis on sustainability and go into business to make an impact, only to find that businesses might not be listening with both ears. Making significant progress integrating sustainability into an organization’s DNA make take time and require long-term stakeholder persuasion and demonstrated value. New grads need to refine their own messaging style to the business audience they will be facing.

Andrew Hutson, project manager, corporate partnerships at the Environmental Defense Fund cautions against the single-minded, high-level, doomsday message that is currently not working. “Don’t lead with ideas that threaten people’s core beliefs and ideas. They instantly turn off.” People like to hear things that confirm their own views and fall within their comfort level. If we can find the right words to tell people a compelling story that is relevant to them, they will care.

Anna Brones, a fellow attendee and writer for another SXSW Eco media partner, EcoSalon, lists words not to use like “green,” “environmental,” and “sustainable.” Robin Rather, CEO of Collective Strength, Inc. added “smart growth” and “livability” to the don’t column. After taking a poll and realizing that the vast majority of Americans didn’t know what “sustainability” meant, she crafted her own, clearer definition.

Hutson reminded everyone (and we all should know better) that it’s important to use the right words for the right audience – what works for business is probably wrong for children and the public and vice versa. Gary Lawrence, VP and chief sustainability officer for AECOM, agreed. “Communication and the spreading of ideas is more important and impactful now than any other time in history. It’s all about finding the right words.”

While the message undergoes some refining and personalization, expectations of what people are willing to do, even once they care, must be adjusted. Individual change has to come in small, non-threatening steps, although many city measures, business initiatives and even prodding by the next generation might propel people into complying with climate change action plans sooner than they would like.

Kelleigh Dulany, VP of Corporate Responsibility for Comedy Central, has a clear message and a specific demographic. She targets primarily young adult males with humor and irreverence using short video clips that deliver funny, bite-sized messages about recycling, sustainability and climate change in an entertaining way. She uses plain language and the right medium. The messages aren’t preachy and give viewers ideas of changes they can make in their own lives. Dulany said, “Make the change small, make the result big, and make the impact local.”

The green movement just needs to find the right story for each audience. It will take many people making small changes, rather than a few making big changes to make an impact. And once people are making the small changes, the bigger ones might not be far behind.

image: Angela Sevin

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.