Sustainability, while not quite the hot topic it was a few years ago, nevertheless continues to be a topic of reasonable warmth today. Priuses are still flying out of showrooms, reusable bags are a fashion statement, and the Obama administration has made renewable energy and conservation fundamentals anchors of its sweeping reorganization of the country. Heck, there’s even been a resurgence in composting (for those who are so agriculturally inclined).
But the question remains: Is sustainability sustainable? Has it been effective? Has it engendered lasting behavioral changes? And, more worrisome, is it starting to fall on deaf ears?
The answer is not especially clear and, thus, not entirely encouraging. We all remember the tremendous efforts undertaken more than a decade ago by the world’s leading food companies to begin to educate consumers about the very real dangers of obesity, the virtues of portion control and low-calorie eating.
But regrettably, and in an extremely damning indictment of those efforts, the U.S. for roughly the 23rd consecutive year (from 1985 to 2007, according to data collected by the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System) has seen a swift and unabated increase in the prevalence of both adult and childhood obesity. Clearly, it can be argued, admonishing regular, everyday people to do something as simple and seemingly pain-free as eating sensibly simply does not work.
Why doesn’t it work? Basic human nature, that’s why.
Without falling into the depths of anthropological analysis, I can nevertheless posit with a reasonable degree of confidence that human beings have evolved to deal most effectively with the present: What is happening now and how can I impact what is happening now? We are far less effective at addressing things that will happen in the future.
A food company can put a label on the front panel of one of its myriad products telling me to curb my intake of calories or to eat five to nine fruit/vegetable servings per day, but the great deficit of that strategy is that it cannot tell you how the benefits of that type of eating will be realized now.
That’s ultimately what people will care most about. As marketers, we should make it a priority to communicate the now messages as much as we can if we hope to have any shot at changing consumers’ behavior in a meaningful way.
Which brings us back to sustainablity and to why I believe the sustainablity movement will also ultimately fail (unless of course the government starts to impose tangible and financial penalties on “nonsustainable” individual behavior).
The sustainability argument those in the media articulate today based on what they observe from the corporate, consumer and political culture revolves mostly around the “benefits/rewards not just for me but for my neighbors and children in the future” angle.
That is a mistake.
Today’s “this will be good for you in the future” position is no longer tenable. As good as consumers’ intentions are, they will naturally, intuitively, place far greater value (read monetary value) to what is happening now rather than what could happen in the future. Unless the sustainability argument gets reframed in now terms, in present-value terms, individual consumers will almost always default to the easiest thing for them to do now, today — which is frequently nothing at all.
Recycling is currently the one “sustainable” behavior that regular people, to a large degree, have effectively integrated into their personal and professional lifestyles. Why? Because recycling is something you can do now. You done with that soda? Just toss the can in the appropriate bin. That’s it. That’s easy. That’s now.
Minding your carbon footprint? Buying offsets along with your airline ticket? Converting your car’s engine to run on biodiesel or ethanol? Solar panels? Not so easy.
Those initiatives ignore the requirements of the present and, in continuing to do so, will never leave the realm of the tiny “eco-warrior” demographic or the celebrity spokesman demographic, which boasts luminaries such as Daryl Hannah (who proudly cruises around her New Mexico town in a 1983 El Camino converted to run on biodiesel) or Willie Nelson (who created his own brand of biodiesel fuel called BioWillie), and will hardly warrant anything more than polite consideration by the general public.
I speak from experience. Last year a small group of my employees approached me about making our company greener, more sustainable. They had it all worked out: We’d go paperless, and recycle by hiring a service to take away the trash from our offices; we’d use compact fluorescent light bulbs exclusively and stock the company pantry with organic, sustainable products from the supermarket and the nearby Union Square farmer’s market. I was all for the plan, so I crunched the numbers. The contemplated changes would cost me a quarter of a million dollars annually. So I returned to my green committee and gave them the news.
“Great!” one said. I asked him what he meant. After all, I knew the cost of going green at work would mean changes, and not just in the content of our snack cabinet. The expense would likely mean my employees would forgo raises. I told him so.
“Oh no,” he and the other members of the green committee said to me, “we want you to pay for it. We don’t want to give up our raises.”
So according to my green-minded employees, the onus for saving the planet is on small-business owners today. My employees, while keenly aware of the benefits of environmental responsibility/sustainability, were not willing to give up tangible, present value things such as money to achieve said benefits.
Does that make them bad employees, bad people? Not at all. It simply reflects the fact that all things considered, the obligations and requirements of the present will always trump the benefits of the future.
So where does that leave us? Should we just abandon all sustainability efforts? Since people don’t care about the future anyway, I’m certainly not advocating apathy, given the present state of things.
Apathy is the enemy of creative ideas.
Rather, I am firmly behind a regrinding of the lens through which we look at sustainability. We need to move completely away from an emphasis on future benefits and shift all discussions back to the opportunities of today: What can science do for sustainability today? How can we make emissions standards and gas mileage targets more nearer-term goals? How can we harness the ingenuity, creativity and ruthless efficiency of capitalism to make the world a greener cleaner now, today?
It is only then that a change will come — and not a moment too soon.