Joel Makower is founder of GreenBiz.com. A version of this article originally appeared on his blog, Two Steps Forward.
Why—amid growing concerns about catastrophic climate change, an epidemic of childhood asthma, and the suburbia’s cancerous concrete sprawl—aren’t Americans up in arms this election year about the environment? Why haven’t they demanded that solar power, electric cars, and other cleaner, greener technologies be accessible to the masses, rather than the eco-playthings of the well-to-do?
The question of how to engage Americans on pressing environmental issues is a perennial one. Surveys over the past quarter century have shown that Americans are concerned about deteriorating air and water quality and the loss of parks and open space in their own communities, if not the rest of the world. But that concern never seems to translate into political action to press politicians and companies to value planet over profits, let alone to accelerate the transformation to a more sustainable society.
Arguably, environmental activist groups haven't made much traction in this effort. After more than 35 years since the birth of the modern environmental movement, the major green nonprofits cumulatively engage only 3 million to 4 million of their fellow citizens—the roughly 1 percent of Americans who appear on the groups' mailing lists.
It's no wonder, then, that the environment ranks near the bottom of issues about which Americans are casting their ballots—or spending and investing their dollars. And it explains why environmentally proactive political candidates don't run on those issues—and why conservative politicians, as a rule, can run roughshod over the planet with impunity.
A group called ecoAmerica—"the first environmental non-profit with a core expertise in consumer marketing"—is hoping to change that state of affairs. Armed with a half-million dollars in market research and out-of-the-box—for enviros, at least—thinking, the group hopes to engage "environmentally agnostic" Americans to support green causes "as a personal and public policy priority."
The high-level findings of ecoAmerica’s research provide a fascinating insight into the challenges—by the environmental community as well as by companies, politicos, and others—in getting Americans to align their actions with their innate desire to make the world a better place.
Over the past year, ecoAmerica and SRI Consulting developed a 240-item mail survey that focused on measuring Americans' attitudes. It used the VALS classification system, which "explains the relationship between personality traits and consumer behavior," according to its creator. VALS uses psychology “to analyze the dynamics underlying consumer preferences and choices. VALS not only distinguishes differences in motivation, it also captures the psychological and material constraints on consumer behavior.”
The complete findings of the research are too detailed to do justice here. But here are some big-picture takeaways:
There is no common agreement on what environmental concern means or what to do about it. To the extent Americans are concerned, they are concerned about widely divergent environmental issues, from global problems to local ones to their ability to hunt, fish, swim, hike, and canoe. Besides being concerned about different issues, they are attracted to—or turned off by—different behaviors.
In other words, they disagree on the problems and the solutions. This diffusion of knowledge, perspectives, and interests makes it hard for environmental messages to gain credibility, let alone to transform concern into action.
Libertarian values are gaining over communal ones. Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute has described two competing mindsets that affect politics and the environment: "We're In This Together" (WITT) and "You're On Your Own" (YOYO). (Linguist George Lakoff describes a similar divergence between the conservative right, which values self-reliance and self-responsibility, and the liberal left, which favors caring, empathy, cooperation, and growth.)
The environmental community—and most green marketers—lean pretty strongly toward the communal, WITT side of the house, a position at odds with the political zeitgeist, at least as practiced for the past quarter century by the YOYO Republican Party. Clearly, there's a need for more "macho" (in Lakoff's terms) marketing—the notion of man as protector, and of personal responsibility to protect families, communities, and the planet. Suffice to say, that’s not the typical messaging that comes out of the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace.
Environmental complexity is paralyzing. In the early days of the modern environmental movement, ecological issues were pretty easy to understand: a company spewed waste into a river. You could see it and smell it and the impact was local, immediate, and often acute. Today's biggest environmental problems—climate, species extinction, depleting fisheries, etc.—are quite the opposite: They are hidden, global, long-term, and chronic. And many environmental challenges involve multiple steps: droughts cause a species to migrate, causing a food-chain reaction resulting in the death of a forest. Such cause-and-effect relationships are tough to grok, even for the knowledgeable.
As a result, activists and marketers need to shun intellectual discussions and not expect people to make big behavioral changes today in order to gain environmental benefits tomorrow. Indeed, says ecoAmerica, Americans’ are increasingly turning anti-intellectual and, therefore, anti-science. That’s unfortunate, to be sure: Understanding the way the world works is key to understanding the potential harm we humans are causing it. In any case, this flies in the face of how most environmentalism is “sold” to Americans by everyone from American Rivers to Al Gore: As factual arguments, often replete with horrifying photos, destined to alienate all but the already committed.
Pocketbook environmentalism is powerful. Consumer behavior, not political behavior, is a more effective route to get buy-in and to change environmentally damaging behaviors, says ecoAmerica. Unlike pure environmental appeals—which often bump up against everything from ignorance to apathy—there is immediate understanding and concern about things that affect our pocketbooks. Sad to say, any product, action, or behavior that can potentially save money is a far bigger motivator than one that can save the planet.
One potential pathway for messagers and marketers is to help consumers understand the hidden costs in products and services that are not environmentally friendly, such as incandescent light bulbs or inefficient cars. This is admittedly tough—it's harder to sell something by pointing out the shortcomings of the competition—but it could help make environmental issues relevant and understandable.
There's more. The ecoAmerica research found that even the most environmentally sympathetic Americans have competing priorities—education, crime, financial woes, tax reform, and all the rest; that many, especially those in lower income groups, are sufficiently indifferent as to be immune to appeals of any kind; and that men and women have very different environmental concerns. That’s three additional challenges for those trying to reach Americans with environmental messages.
The bottom line, says ecoAmerica: "We have an image problem." Environmentalists seem disconnected from most Americans. Indeed, many Americans view the environmental movement as traditional, dated, and somewhat out of touch with current society.
That's ironic perhaps. Many environmentalists believe they have a better understanding of the state of the world than do other people. And they might. But that's of little consequence. The millions of Security Moms and NASCAR Dads who haven't yet tuned into how climate change and fisheries loss might mess with their kids' future aren't about to be beaten into submission by the latest arguments or evidence. They're not about to make purchase decisions based on a maybe-someday rationale for stemming environmental problems. They want to know: “What's in it for me, today?”
It’s not just an image problem, of course. the messages of the environmental crowd have been effectively countered by the deep-pocketed opposition, from oil companies’ proclamations about going “beyond petroleum” to the right-wing YOYOs casting doubt about global warming’s mere existence. No wonder that so many Americans find it more compelling to simply jump into their SUVs and drive to the mall.
So, big news: Americans are shallow, misinformed, self-interested, and unsophisticated. Still, they're our neighbors, our colleagues, and our relatives. And they're likely the constituents of green-minded politicians, activists, and marketers. So, if we intend to move Americans toward greener behavior and actions, we’ll need to deal—carefully and creatively—with all of these sobering realities.