Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Selfish Environmentalist


Washington Dept. of Ecology

Experiments by psychologists  have found that an unintended consequence of marketing good environmental behavior to people in terms of self interest (carpooling saves money) is to make them less likely to recycle (“Think Globally, Act Selfishly: How Utilitarian Environmentalism Can Backfire”)

I’m reminded of giving a talk about runoff pollution and how preserving wetlands could offset the costs of treating pollutants in runoff.  During the subsequent discussion, I was reminded by two women sitting in the front row that I should not forget that these wetlands are also good simply for the birds and the animals that live there.

It’s always good to be brought back to the pure love of the natural world, especially if you’ve spent a career figuring out what moves people to take actions for the environmental “good.”

In the late ‘80s, a Roper poll surveying people’s attitudes about environmental behavior found about a fifth of the population considered themselves “green” because they took environmental actions or gave to or belonged to environmental causes. A fifth of the population (“browns”) did not take environmental actions or were hostile to things considered “environmental.” Which left a vast middle of three-fifths of the population who may or may not have taken some environmental actions and were receptive to environmental issues but who didn’t consider themselves “environmentalists.”

What messages resonate with this majority and motivate them to action under the banner of green activism? We all would want a single-message campaign, the holy grail, the silver bullet of marketing messaging. But that majority was not homogeneous and messages focused on cost-savings, convenience, health, economic opportunity and so forth would resonate with different segments of this population.

Hence, the marketing gurus giving workshops in social marketing give students this to take home with them: segment your audience, identify the barriers to their taking the actions you want them to take, and work to remove those barriers to facilitate those actions. Secondarily: choose your messengers well and use peer pressure.

It doesn’t always come down to self-interest. It’s good to be reminded that environmental actions don’t always easily “pencil out” to make sense in dollars and cents terms. In the case of recycling,  a strong pricing signal (cost of garbage pickup) combined with convenience (curbside pickup) made the action routine enough to become a habit. Littering, however, is another story. There’s no clear pricing signal that littering costs an individual anything and convenience (trash containers in handy locations) isn’t everywhere. How about picking up doggie doo? Does self-interest resonate there?

For the two ladies in the front row, wetlands were simply good places to protect, period. Just like some people I know who used to wash out their glass and tin cans and drive miles to the nearest recycling station. They’d just do it because it was the right thing to do.

But for most of us, the message has to resonate with where we are in our lives at the time we hear it— and the action asked of us has to be behavior that makes sense to us. We’re not all the same. That’s the challenge of building a long-term environmental movement around taking environmental actions.

But it sure is nice to be reminded that it’s simply a good thing to love and protect the natural world.

--Mike Sato

1 comment:

  1. I liked the post and the reminders! If only there was the magic bullet!

    I (and quite few others around Puget Sound) have recently taken a 2-day class about Social Marketing given by Nancy Lee, one of those Gurus. To help us better do outreach and awareness and edcation regarding protecting and improving Puget Sound. Some of us also took a one-day "Train the Trainers" class from Nancy and are preparing to go forth and give an overview of Social Marketing to others. The points you make about segmenting your audience and focusing on one subset and understanding and removing barriers, etc. were well drilled into us and hopefully we will do the same!

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