Humanizing sustainability.

We connected with 500 customers from around the world and asked about their relationship with the planet we live on and ideas on ways to address climate change together.  

How do we create a more sustainable future?

We all know we need to do something about the environment. People, governments, charities, companies. Big, small. Rich, poor. Left, right. We all know. That’s not what this is. We are not looking at the science or making doomsday predictions about what will happen by when if we don’t do x.

This Episode of Customer, Now looks at how. How we could act. How we’re getting it wrong. And how to get it right.

As with every Episode of Customer, Now, we worked with 500ish ordinary, extraordinary people from around the world. With this Episode, we wanted to explore people’s environments – how they see and relate to the planet they live on to understand how we could better solve for it.

But we went a step further…we started to solve WITH them. We co-created ideas together to help save the planet, rather than simply talk about it.

Quick caveat. We didn’t save it. However, we did surface some new thinking that we believe should be part of an evolved dialogue about how to address the massive issue of “THE ENVIRONMENT” in simpler, more human ways.

And that brings us to our main point… the need to make the planet personal. To translate all the science, all the facts and figures, all the political posturing and corporate speak into language, feelings and actions that mean more to more people. Because the one human truth we keep seeing and hearing from people is, “it’s not THE environment, it’s MY environment.” And when people hear companies, politicians and experts talk, they hear all about “THE environment” not “MY environment.” They don’t hear or see themselves in the conversation.

Scrap the chemistry talk.

Let’s look at the discussion of “carbon neutrality” – generally, the idea of saving as many natural resources as one uses. One can’t put their toe in the water of “saving the planet” without entering into some discussion about about some version of being, going or becoming “carbon neutral” by some date in the way-too-distant-future. And yet, it’s a simple idea, but with REALLY confusing language.

We were taught in school, that carbon is in all natural things. From people to diamonds. And there was something about “carbon dating,” and that was a good thing. So, carbon is good, right? But I want it to be neutral? That can’t be right. Where else in life is “neutral” put on a pedestal? “Hooray, we got to… neutral?”

OK, let’s confuse things further. Let’s talk about “CO2 emissions”. CO2 is the good one, right? Carbon Dioxide. It’s what we breathe out. CO, Carbon Monoxide, that’s the bad one from a car’s tailpipe. And those are emissions…emissions are bad and we want less of them. To get to neutral? But wait, we’re trying to get to neutral CO2 emissions, not CO emissions? So, what, we should breathe less? Ugh.

Add to it, your “carbon footprint,” “carbon offsets”, “carbon caps”, “carbon credits”, “carbon recapture” and “net-zero carbon emissions” (as opposed to “gross-zero”?), it all kinda makes you feel dumber for not understanding any of it.

Making people feel dumber is never the recipe for better actions. And in NONE of our conversations with real people, did they make ANY mention of “carbon” anything. 

A “me problem” vs. an “over there problem.”

This separation between “the” environment and “my” environment keeps the discussion, the urgency and the actions all at a distance from people, rather than engaging people in the problem and potential solutions. The environment becomes, as one of our participants said, an “over there problem” vs. a “me problem.” And that’s a big problem. The separation between “over there” and “me” gives me an excuse for not taking action and feeling justified for it, because others – “over there” – should.

Instead, we need to ask what it takes for every person to be part of the conversation? To include all 7 billion of us in a dialogue about the environment as a “me problem.” Not a climate problem, an ocean problem, a rainforest or an ice caps problem, but a life problem, inclusive of all 7 billion “me’s”.

We derived 5 principles of an answer in “5 Ps to saving the planet”. As principles, these 5 Ps help us to approach the problem differently. Not as daunting and too big. But as a start. To address some unaddressed “low hanging fruit” to engage a wider audience in critical issues of the planet in ways more relatable to us all.

#1: Make it personal.

First, is to make the planet personal. To bring the issue down from corporate, political and environmentalist speak to the human touch.

As Claudia, a woman in one of our workshops suggested, to make it a conversation, “heart-to-heart”. “The main thing is a heart,” she said. “It has to tell a story. It has to be relatable. I have to have it touch me. We have to find a way to share the language [because it is] in the language that connects to our hearts…that’s just where the biggest impact is gonna be.” Well said, Claudia.

The environment is an emotional place in people’s lives, but the conversations surrounding it are of science, facts and obscura. When the conversation does turn emotional, more often than not, it gets scary. Doomsdays scenarios, oceans rising, storms-a-comin. Things people don’t want to think about. And ya know what happens when people are faced with things they don’t want to think about? You guessed it…they don’t think about it.

In psychological parlance this is called having “a negative affect.” But in real-world experience, we all know we don’t like to think and talk about death, suffering, taxes and root canals. Same goes for climate change.

But when people talk about the environment, THEIR environment, they talk about the outside. The birds singing, the kids playing and feeling the sun shining. They light up. They instantly smile. There is not nearly enough smiling in the current discussion of the environment.

You know you’ve made it personal when people smile when they hear you talk. Look at you now, smiling…

#2: Make it a priority.

On the surface, this one is obvious. We all have enough to do, the environment can’t be another “thing.” But dig a little deeper and you uncover very different perspectives on where the environment ranks in people’s lives.

In short, the less one has to worry about other things, the more one CAN worry about the environment. But if I’m worried about my health, my bills, my life, my safety, ”the environment” falls far down the list of priorities.

John, one of the participants in our workshop, framed his thoughts on the environment in context of living life as a Black man in America. “When I think of ‘the environment,’ I’m mindful of being alive, to be able to raise my children,” he said. “I’m not able to think 60 years out. I’m not able to come to terms with what it will look like generations from now. I’m trying to make it to tomorrow. So, I’m very present to the harsh reality of what this environment means to me on a very practical level, on a daily basis. It is idealistic to think about the ozone layer and what recycling means. But on a very practical level, I’m trying to figure out how I can make it till the end of this week.”

The ozone layer isn’t a priority to John. It is worlds away from the reality of living his life. Day to day. Decision to decision. On some level, it is a privilege to be able to be concerned about the ozone layer.

Here again, when we frame the environment against things like the ozone layer, we create a literal distance from the issue. It becomes easier to deprioritize.

However, when seen as a life issue, the environment takes on new meaning as a daily, immediate priority.

Ever hear of “the broken window theory”? It states something to the effect, that visible signs of crime (i.e., broken windows) create an environment that encourages further crime. Fix the windows, you change the environment.

Similarly, when seen as a visible, daily and critical local issue, we can begin to see and talk about “the environment” as a safe walk to school, a clean glass of drinking water, parks, food, trees, shade, flowers, grass – things that are infinitely relatable, seen as unavoidable priorities, critical to living our lives.

#3: Make it present.

It has long been said about the environment to, “Think Global, Act Local.” However, what we found in all of our explorations with people, as soon as we took the conversation to a “global” place, we lost people. People dissociated with the problem, rather than seeing it as theirs. The problem became someone else’s to do something about; problems too big to do anything about, myself.

Most environmental problems aren’t present in people’s lives. Rising ocean levels have little presence in people’s lives living inland. Deforestation has little presence in people’s lives living in cities. These are other people’s problems.

It’s not that people are selfish, it’s that when issues don’t show up in our lives, they aren’t felt. They aren’t experienced. There’s little room for empathy when we literally don’t know what others are experiencing.

People need to FEEL the difference they are making. We found, the best way to make the environment more present in people’s lives is by talking about it as a local issue… to “think local, act local and make a difference in MY neighborhood.” When we do, we make the issue more present in the present day. More about the now. The urgency. The things right in front of us. The things I can change today. In my life. In my house. In my community.

What we say vs. what we do.

Talk with nearly any Chief Marketing Officer and they’ll tell you about their frustration with what people say vs. what they do. Typical consumer research has said for years, that people want more sustainable products; that they’re willing to pay more for them; and that they want to support companies that hold sustainability as a core value; etc. And etc. And etc.

The list is long of what people say they want and what they’ll do. AND THEN, they don’t. People overwhelming vote with their wallets, counter to what they say they want and what they’ll do if offered it.

Why? To be fair, there are lots of reasons. But a big reason their “green” actions don’t follow their “green” words is because they don’t see the difference THEY are making with their decisions. Because they see their decision as small, they see their action as small and their impact as small… if at all.

What difference does it make if I buy this “green” product vs. that not-so-green product? Truthfully, not much. But when we look at the difference people can make, well, differently, we see endless opportunities to better align people’s intentions with their actions.

What do we mean? Here again, the answer, in part, lies in seeing the “green” choice as one for MY environment rather than THE environment. When people see the difference a green product can make in THEIR lives, they see the difference THEY can make… rather than the difference the COMPANY makes in THE environment.

Try thinking about a simple example. Imagine a “green” dish soap. One could imagine marketing it as non-toxic for the environment, the ozone, the oceans, etc. OR, you could imagine the same product marketed as safe enough to wash your family dog; clean enough not to affect your ground water; easily recycled locally at X facility.

We’d argue the dish soap you can wash the dog with will win over far more people than the one for the ozone. In that case, as someone shared with us, the takeaway is that, “I actually live better.”

Seeing the benefit of “green” products/choices in MY life; in the things that matter to me, makes an immediate and direct impact… that people feel.

We can’t help but wonder if all those CMOs — frustrated by consumers not doing what they say they want to — aren’t telling people what they really need to hear. 

#4: Make it practical.

Inevitably, the ultimate question about the environment is, “How?” Great to make the environment more personal; more of a priority; more present in people’s lives… but how? When it comes down to the brass tacks of it all, how do we do it?

Sally may have the answer. In one of our co-creation workshops, we ran an exercise we call, “Art from Within.” It gets people to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas in pictures rather than words. By drawing.

In the exercise, we aren’t looking for artists, we’re looking for how people make sense of big, gnarly issues in simple ways they can draw – usually pulling from the simplest forms they know… circles, squares, stick figures in any variety of different colors that tell a story.

In this exercise about the environment, Sally, one of our workshop participants drew a traffic light: Red, for things she should stop doing; yellow, for things she should do less of; green, for things she should do more of… A simple, practical application of behavior change built from a universally understood construct of a traffic light.

Sally got out of the theory and got into the practical application of making ideas simple, understood and easy to know what to do. And that’s the big barrier that her drawing illustrated – that people don’t know what to do, what they should do less of, what they should do more of.

Vanessa, another one of our workshop participants said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. There are so many different messages,” she said. “Aside from recycling, there’s no clear universal sense of ‘this is what we should be doing’ because there’s so many different messages coming from all directions about it. And when you are living a fast life with kids and running from A-to-B constantly, unless you’re seeking it out, it’s hard to really find how you can help.”

Sally’s traffic light simply solved for that most basic need. She used simple language, small steps, everyday behavior, to demystify the words and actions to make the solution practical.

#5: Make it participatory.

As we stated in “make it personal,” the environment is a personal issue to people. They want to be more involved in it, more connected to it. They want more of the environment in more of their lives, in more meaningful ways.

But here’s a(nother) big disconnect. Companies only talk about what their companies are doing; what they’re committed to; the actions they are taking. Largely, companies’ efforts leave customers out of the equation, other than to be the downstream beneficiary, at best… or the forgotten, in reality.

Companies don’t talk about what WE can do together.

The real power companies have is in the activation of their customers into more environmentally friendly actions. Getting people to be part of the solution, rather than defaulting into more of the problem.

And here’s the big opportunity… people WANT to be a bigger part of the solution. They want to be more involved.

For companies, it’s an opportunity to reframe sustainability as a shared problem, a shared ambition with shared actions, so consumers are participating in the brand, making a bigger difference together. Ultimately, answering the question, “How do we do this together?”

The 80 percenters.

n one of our activities with people, we asked them to “fill in the blank:” “If I could [blank], I would [blank.]” The first “blank” received fairly expected responses, similar in sentiment to “If I could… ‘make a bigger difference in saving the planet’”. People shared general statements about wanting to make the world a better place. Even amongst the most divisive, most everyone could agree they wanted a better world for themselves, their kids, their grandkids.

But the second, “fill in the blank” was where we saw an interesting piece of data emerge. 80% of responses reflected on what they themselves would do:

• “I would ‘adopt a vegetarian diet.’”
• “I would ‘have a large garden with some fruit trees and bushes so that I could harvest my own crops in a sustainable manner.’”
• “I would ‘not buy plastics and certainly no things wrapped in plastics anymore.’”
• “I would ‘become a better person.’”

Whereas, 20% of the responses suggested what OTHER people should do:
• “I would ‘build multi family homes to cut down on the cutting of trees.’”
• “I would ‘make everyone grow most of their own food as I do.’”
• “I would ‘enact major tough environmental regulations.’”

The “80 percenters” made it a “Me” problem with a “Me” solution…often with a benefit to “Me”. “I would ‘feel good about myself knowing I am helping make a real difference.’”

And here’s where it got REALLY interesting. The “20 percenters,” i.e., those who talked about what OTHER people should do, counted themselves as “the most committed to the environment.”

Said differently, the 20 percent are the high and mighty preachers – telling other people what they should do. Whereas the 80 percent are the doers – wanting to do more.

The problem is, the 80 percenters only see themselves and their individual actions – not part as the larger group of 80 percenters that they are.

As one person said, “I’m only one person and it’s difficult to influence enough people to make a difference.” No, you’re not… you’re part of the 80 percent that WANT to do more!

Getting the 80 percent to see themselves as part of a movement of like-minded people is where the big opportunity lives.

Yes, we can make it better.

In an exercise we conducted, exploring people’s thoughts and feelings on the environment, of 15,149 words, the number-one word people used was “can”.

For example:
“keeping the world at a level where we CAN reuse what we use”
“the process CAN keep repeating”
“using materials that CAN be replaced…”
“Something that lasts or CAN be regenerating”


What it really means to thrive, and how brands can play a role in getting consumers there.

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