The Sustainable Consumption Series: How to talk to people about sustainable consumption

Jamie Long // Columnist 

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” – George Bernard Shaw  

Today, it is well-known that mass levels of consumption and natural resource exploitation by human activity is the leading cause of environmental crisis. Because of this, a shift towards more eco-aware values and behaviours is imperative for an ecologically stable future. If we are all aware, however, that human activity is the primary cause of environmental destruction, why hasn’t our collective behaviour changed? 

If you’re anything like me, you struggle to do virtually anything without considering the impact of your actions on the earth. But for others, this way of thinking doesn’t come quite so easily. In fact, studies in environmental psychology have identified some of the reasons why talking about the environment in productive, and behaviour-influencing ways can be so difficult. 

In the face of today’s environmental destruction, we must consider the way we talk about our own human activity as a component of ecological disruption. In the past, mass-communication strategies attempting to improve environmentally responsible behaviour have been based primarily on the assumption that people only need to be educated about the risks of environmental devastation in order to start acting. This simplistic strategy, however, has yet to encourage the necessary volume of action to really be considered effective. Psychology has played a vital role in uncovering what does and does not work in terms of communication strategies to encourage pro-environmental behaviour. 

Oftentimes, people can be blinded to the true impact of their actions, but breaking this paralyzing hold is critical for any real behavioural change to occur. Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, outlined the inefficacy of most communication strategies. First off, because nature is non-human, people have a difficult time grasping the importance and/or severity of the current environmental crisis. Secondly, through simply educating individuals on the state of today’s environmental crisis, their moral sensibilities often do not feel violated, and these sensibilities are essentially what function as  the brain’s call to action. Lastly, because environmental crises are not seen as a threat to the immediate future, humans are slow to respond.  

To actually encourage action, studies have suggested that providing solution-oriented messages and provoking human emotion in environmental communication each play a meaningful role. When combined, these strategies have the potential to generate real and long-lasting shifts in human values, attitudes and behaviours regarding environmental care and protection. So what does this mean for you? 

There are simple ways you can apply these lessons in communication to your own life. When working to promote sustainable behaviour, I believe that it is essential to identify opportunities for positive change while at the same time outlining why these actions are important. For instance, instead of attempting to convince a friend to compost by simply providing facts, it might be more beneficial to explain how simple the process of composting actually is. At the same time, you could encourage the idea of how composting can benefit your friend as well as their community in order to ultimately set them up for success.  

With most topics, I would like to promote unconditional acceptance and understanding for all. But when our actions remain harmful to others (human and otherwise), I believe that meaningful conversations to raise self-awareness and inspire change are imperative. Touching further on the stimulation of emotions, some study results have suggested that motivating a guilty conscience in order to promote pro-environmental values and behaviours can be effective. But please approach this idea with a grain of salt, and note that by writing this, I am not promoting anyone to outright guilt or shame their peers. Instead, I only want to highlight the potential benefits of increasing and promoting self-awareness in consideration of the human-caused environmental crisis that we are facing today. 

Overall, we need to hold not only ourselves, but each other accountable for our actions. Because solutions to current-day environmental devastation are so multi-faceted and can seem so convoluted, I believe that a great place to start is simply through communicating. If we can find  inspiration to open up a meaningful and impactful dialogue, then why not? Go for it! Share what you know and empower others to save the world while you’re at it! 

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