How Do You Sell Environmentalism?

EnvironmentalismI’ve started to study marketing in my old age. Part of me feels like a sell-out. (This is the part of me that hears the word “marketing” and immediately pictures a sleazy salesman with gleaming white teeth and perfectly gelled hair.) Part of me is excited to be learning something new. And the other part appreciates that on some basic level, nearly every form of communication we do is marketing. Marketing is attempting to transmit a message, to sell your view (if not your product).

Standard product advertisements have pretty straightforward messages.  Drink this beer and you’ll be sexy.  Buy this car and keep your family safe.  There are even subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages about what happens if you don’t buy the product: You’ll never find true love, your children will die horrible deaths, and the Jones will find out what a pathetic loser you are.

But how do you effectively market something as abstract as environmentalism? You can try the same techniques but it’s a little harder to convince people that changing compact fluorescent light bulbs is sexy or that recycling will give your house the sparkly clean shine that bleach does. You certainly can play up the idea of keeping your family safe and preserving your personal health, but it’s still hard to make it concrete. There’s also the problem of overstimulating people and getting them so worked up they choose to stop listening like the boy who cried wolf. Even if everything you say is true, it’s easy to overwhelm people and then they’ll tune you out.

There’s been some discussion of the topic over at No Impact Man’s blog and he advocates knowing your audience and tailoring your message to them. Tell the people interested in their health about ways to preserve their health. Talk to the people with kids about protecting their future. I totally agree with the philosophy but instead of helping, it only seems to make it harder! How do you get to know your audience so you can design a message to reach them?

Luckily, there are lots of people promoting green living, environmentalism, sustainability, social equity, locally grown food, peace, and all kinds of other great ideas in all kinds of different ways. I don’t have to figure out how to sell the idea of green living to the world, which is a tremendous relief. I think I’d probably have better luck selling cars; at least they’re tangible.

What sells you on environmentalism? this!

3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Jamie said,

    February 8, 2008 @ 5:53 am

    It’s a tough sell, in large part because environmentalism–particularly conservation and reduced consumption is completely counter to all functioning Western economics. We have built an economy based on PRODUCTION, and what is produced must be consumed, or the producers are out of jobs and the economy tanks–at least, that’s the theory, and that’s why the government is pouring billions of dollars into tax cuts. The hope is that people go out and blow that money immediately. So how do you sell something that undermines the economy of the Western world, and therefore the entire world?

    Good damn question.

    The crux of the biscuit is that I don’t think the bulk of people will buy something that reduces the perceived quality of their lives. The only obvious options are 1) come up with a way to meet those needs “greenly,” or 2) wait for large scale suffering to change the economics of the situation such that the cost/benefit analysis changes dramatically.

    I think you’ll agree that #2 is…undesirable. But that’s the only way I can see people being susceptible to “selling” environmentalism en masse.

    Other ideas?

  2. 2

    Maggie said,

    February 8, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

    I feel like I ought to take a deep breath and plunge deeply into economics because surely someone has looked into an economic model that doesn’t assume perpetual growth. I mean, I understand basing an economy on production and consumption but isn’t there a finite limit to how much can/should be consumed and can’t we find a good way to live within that?

    If that could be done then we could eliminate the issue of “undermining the economy of the entire world” and the issue would just be convincing people to move back to a lower consumption level. That is also an issue but I believe there can be a lot done to shift perceptions about what leads to a “quality life.” I’m sure it will be a long time until some people are willing to turn their thermostat below 70 in the winter and stop buying shelves full of DVDs for their home video systems but there are a lot of things like increasing energy efficiency that don’t have a noticeable impact on day-to-day quality of life – in fact, they save money by reducing electric bills.

    The question is, where is that point where we can keep the economy going and keep people in relative comfort and keep from destroying our environment? It may be below the comfort level of a lot of folks. And it may require a drastic reduction in population. But I like to think it’s achievable through happier methods than large scale suffering.

  3. 3

    Jamie said,

    February 9, 2008 @ 12:25 am

    One place to start looking at economic models that do not assume infinite growth is John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society.” If you’re going to read economics, this is about as good as it gets. He makes a bunch of screwed-up, difficult economic concepts easy to understand, and he offers alternatives to the crazy production-oriented model.

    Oh, and here’s a blog you might check out. It’s pretty good about practical approaches to real environmental problems.

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