Environmental Communication & Sustainability: Ineffective?

Although the concept of sustainability and environmentalism has existed for decades, I became more involved with learning about sustainability through interacting with activists, consultants and businesses alike in the sustainable sector two years ago. Enrolling in a special topics course on Environmental Communications & Climate Change opened my eyes to the issues facing climate change and environment and more specifically, the challenges of communicating with the general public about the environment.

Environmental communication interests me because of two central issues: does terminology play a part in the effectiveness of environmental communication and what medium is most effective at influencing people on issues on the environment? A former classmate of mine mentioned during a recent conversation that he wanted to de-emphasize the fact that his janitorial company used ‘green’ cleaning products because he believed that the word ‘green’ is overused and therefore passé.

Is being sustainable really passé or is it just the language? How could educating the public about the environment and creating awareness around an alternative lifestyle-a sustainable one-be outdated? I believe that when it comes to sustainability and the environment, it comes down to the language and the terminology we use to talk about the subject.  If ‘green’ is considered passé and ‘eco’ is considered to be overused and perhaps outdated, perhaps what we need to do is to start referring to ‘green’ products, issues and concepts as ‘environmentally sustainable’. Certainly, it’s not as catchy, but it has the benefit of being true and it describes the heart of environmental communication in two words that you could never do with ‘eco’ or ‘green’.

Terminology and language aside, the other issue with environmental communication that fascinates me is the question of how you discover which medium is more effective at raising awareness on environmental and sustainability issues and how to influence audiences’ behaviors accordingly. Activist Tzeporah Berman once told me in a phone interview from her home on Cortes Island that it doesn’t matter if twenty, thirty years from now, everyone on earth is driving an electric car,  because it would do very little to reduce our carbon footprint. Why is that? Mainly because while a new behavior is introduced, we have yet to let go of all the other habits that lead to environmental harm.

On a local level, I sat down with Andy Orr, who is responsible for corporate communications for the CRD for the Greater Victoria region late last year. We both agreed that much of the behavior of the general public had yet to change in relation to sustainability because suitable and-permanent-alternatives were not available. Take the example of using reusable cloth bags. Certainly, I can use cloth bags for any of my shopping and storage needs, but what about garbage? As I pointed out to Mr. Orr, no one is about to spend money on cloth bags only to throw them out with the garbage. If the general public does not use plastic bags for their garbage, what suitable, biodegradable environmental alternative is available, that is also strong enough to handle heavy and really soiled items? We both agreed that while introducing reusable bags to the general public was a good idea, however, it only introduced a new behavior; it didn’t eliminate other behaviors, because permanent alternatives had yet to be introduced. On the issue of environmental communication, he expressed concern that transitioning over to social media to spread the message of composting would not only alienate the CRD’s existing audience but reduce creditability of the organization.

And would it? Certainly, there seem to be two camps within the sustainable sector that are involved with social media: the activists and the eco-consumerists. I’ve personally seen Twitter and Facebook accounts from activists such as Tzeporah on her initiatives such as Power UP Canada, active blogs such as the DeSmog Blog from Kevin Grandia, among others as well as larger environmental activist organizations like Greenpeace. And on the other end of the spectrum, you have businesses who have built their companies on selling eco-friendly, sustainable products from household items to gifts for pets such as local business The Good Planet Company.  For businesses and individuals such as these, utilizing social media to raise awareness and attract customers and activists does work. Why? Because their audiences utilize social media on a daily, sometimes even hourly basis.

But where does a government organization fit in with the medium of social media? Individual political campaigns nonwithstanding, how does a government organization devote time and resources to utilize social media to raise awareness of their initiatives with a NEW target audience and not neglect nor alienate their current audience? In our conversation, I didn’t have a ready answer for Mr. Orr. But after giving it some thought, I believe that it comes down to two things: individual target markets and the skills of the people who belong to that organization. If the organization contains individuals who are comfortable and knowledge about social media, give them the opportunity to reach out to new target markets on the issue of composting and devote the rest of your resources to the existing audiences.

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