What do we have to do to make people care about sustainability?

evening by the pond
© Jonas Adolfsen

The Shelton Group is a consultancy that focuses on “the sustainability arena – with an emphasis on energy and the environment” and has been on TreeHugger mostly for its surveys, which have shown that American are deluded about energy conservation or that most Americans do not put concern for the environment high on their list.

Suzanne Shelton, like TreeHugger, has been banging her head against the wall for years, trying to figure out how to motivate people to take an interest in sustainability. In her latest blog post, she concludes that we are continuing to fail at this, writing that "all the energy efficiency measures we track have flatlined. Tired old messaging about savings has lost its potency, if it ever had any to begin with." She notes that people always cite the saving of money as their main reason for doing energy-saving improvements, but then they don’t actually do much about it.

By leading with savings, we trigger left brain ROI calculations and defense mechanisms. Twenty-seven percent of Americans tell us they’re barely making ends meet, and another 25% say they flat-out can’t justify the up-front expense of energy efficiency. So by leading with savings, we trigger folks to think about the upfront cost, and they instantly conclude they can’t afford it.

Yet there are lots of things that we buy that we don’t need,

…and there are many other reasons to purchase energy efficiency products that have nothing to do with saving money. Those are the reasons we need to be tapping into. Savings should be the secondary message, the justifier of the expense.

This is an issue that we have been wrestling with since TreeHugger started; in fact, it is the reason we exist in the first place, in our attempt to make sustainability desirable, something that people want. I wrote last year that we should be concentrating on comfort:

Particularly now, when energy is cheap, people are not very interested in a big investment to save a few bucks over the next twenty years. But tell them that they will be more comfortable, they will breathe better air and will stay comfy when the power goes out, and it resonates.

Suzanne Shelton concludes that "the reason to be energy efficient should be about satisfying a greater need, a deeper driver. Once we get that messaging right, we’ll start to get some real traction in the energy efficiency market." But what are those deeper drivers? What are they right now? Katherine has noted, in her post on the Danish concept of Hygge,

2016 has been a rough, dark year in so many ways. Stormy seas of uncertainty surround us and there is comfort to be found in holing up, seeking fulfilment in smaller social groups, DIY projects, and a perceived return to the past, when things were simpler.

Perhaps this year the best way to save energy this year will be to turn off the television and disconnect from Twitter. To say goodbye minimalism, hello cosy, perhaps in energy efficient tiny houses sited far from civilization. That might get traction.

What do we have to do to make people care about sustainability?
This year, it might all be about comfort and coziness.

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