For a long time now, I have wanted to write about the (at times, unfortunate) way we communicate about sustainability. So in this post I intend to do so. Not least because I am currently finishing a chapter for my forthcoming book Anti-trend, Durable Design and the Art of Resilient Living on this topic.
Additionally, I have felt the need to highlight the satisfying act of buying something beautiful; of getting attracted to a beautiful, intriguing, well-made object and acquiring it (without feeling naughty). Don’t get me wrong: I am all up for radical reduction of consumption! But, investing in aesthetically nourishing, emotionally captivating, functional objects that can beautify and enhance or perhaps improve or simplify our lives and homes is both enriching and edifying. It is important for me to make it clear that my immaterialist mission is not about suggesting nihilistic refusal of any physical attachment to the world, but rather conscious reduction by encouraging an anti-trendy lifestyle.
As Simone de Beauvoir equitably put it in The Ethics of Ambiguity:
“There is no way for man to escape this world. It is in this world that he must realize himself morally.”
Overconsumption and buy-and-throw-away mentality is at the one end of the scale of the golden mean, whereas nihilistic refusal and turning away from society altogether is at the other end. We need to find a balance. We need to seek durable permanence. We need objects that can satisfy our inherent need for beauty and aesthetic nourishment, only in a sustainable manner.
Put differently; I am not on a mission that involves preaching doomsday. Yes, there are definitely a lot of pollution-based problems in the world. And, yes, we most certainly need to change our ways radically in order to stop the unfortunate development we see at the moment in relation to climate change, inequality and mindless consumption. But I think that one of the many reasons this “turning things around” seems to be so hard is that the way we are being told to change things is very lecturing-based and fear driven. Generally, we don’t respond well to these kinds of approaches. This can be compared to wanting to get a child to eat properly and variated by only saying: “don’t eat with your fingers” (or else you have bad manners), or “don’t only eat the pasta, you have to also eat the vegetables” (or you will get malnourished). What do you think the child will do? She will eat the pasta only, with her fingers. Drawing the line between the fun of eating with her fingers and something as abstract as bad manners, or between not eating boring vegetables and being malnourished is way too intangible and irrelevant to her.
Now, I am not saying that consumers, or people in general, are child-like. But there is some kind of reverse psychology going on here that is fundamentally human.
A large part of the communication about sustainably and environmental issues is somewhat similar to the attempt to getting the child to eat properly and variated by saying “don’t”. It goes somewhat like this: “don’t use plastic bags”, “don’t travel by airplane”, or “don’t buy fast fashion”, or else “something bad might happen…!” There are rarely immediate alternatives served, and the consequences of not stopping our plastic-bag-airplane-fashion-based behaviour is presented as doomsday-scenarios: starving polar bears, melting poles, increased amount earthquakes and other natural disasters like heatwaves and ice storms etc. To the common consumer drawing a line between buying that cheap trendy dress and wearing it only once before discarding it — or saying “yes please” to that plastic bag to put tomatoes in in the supermarket and the melting Antarctic ice is (understandably) hard.
Relevance is the key word here! Relevance and applicability. Unless you feel that what is served to you in the immense stream of information we are all faced with on a daily basis as a part of our late-modern information society is relevant to you, as well as applicable to your life, you will most likely not feel inclined to act accordingly. Well, unless of course you are an idealistic environmental activist, which, let’s face it, the majority of people are not.
My take is that there is something wrong with the way the importance of acting and consuming sustainably is communicated. The stories told must resonate with people; they must feel relevant and applicable in order to be persuasive.
The problem with communication on sustainability is often originated in the companies’ sustainability strategies and goals. These tend to be too abstract, too broad, too rational, and hence very hard to write applicable, relevant, touching stories about.
A good example of very abstract and broad sustainability goals is UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (often referred to as the SDGs) to be reached by 2030. The goals are ambitious, which is not a bad thing at all; we need ambitious objectives at the moment. However, they are virtually impossible to grasp and measure.
Let me exemplify my point by highlighting and analyzing some of the SDGs. Beneath each of the SDGs an array of targets is listed, which is actually a great way to concretize abstract and theoretical objectives. However, the target points remain all too non-concrete. If you, for example, take a look at goal no. 5: Gender Equality, and click unto the targets and indicators, the first target point is:
“End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.”
Now, there is a lot to say about this target-point. One cannot possibly disagree with the importance of it, but how can it in any way be measured, or reached for that matter?
The same goes for the other SDGs. Like for example goal no. 7: Affordable and clean energy. The first target point you will find below this one is:
“By 2030, ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services.”
Universal access? Affordable? Modern? These terms are all extremely abstract and non-concrete. What is affordable? I guess that depends on a lot of things, and on where and who you are. And, what does modern mean? Up-to date? State of the art? High-tech? When one uses terms that are this open and broad, there is a risk of miscommunication, or at least of not getting through with important messages (which the SDGs most certainly are).
One must help the reader or listener to anchor the exact meaning that one wants to communicate; and making use of broad, abstract terms like the ones here listed is not a good way of doing so. A word like modern contains too many connotations and meanings, and it will therefore be very individual how it is understood. An option is a concept definition, or even better; a different, more distinct word.
Furthermore, goals must be reachable, which is why aiming for universal access might be slightly farfetched. Think about all the remote regions in the world; how would this ever be achievable? Unless of course, the minds behind this target point have something concrete in mind, like an off-grid package or something alike it. But, if that is the case, then why not exemplify it like that, in order to make the goal more understandable and reachable? The goals would be much more clear, plausible, and usable if they were made concrete and accessible.
Communication on sustainability, equality, and environment is often too intellectual and abstract – as well as way too facts-based and non-emotional.
A good example of the lack of ability to make the goals feel applicable is SDG no. 4: Quality Education. Underneath each of the goals you will find the progress that has been made towards reaching the goals by 2030, which in itself is brilliant, but the information is very rational and facts packed. Progress of goal 4 in 2018:
“At the global level, the participation rate in early childhood and primary education was 70 per cent in 2016, up to 63 per cent in 2010. The lowest rates are found in sub-Saharan Africa (41 per cent) and Northern Africa and Western Asia (52 per cent).”
Can you feel it? Can you imagine the lives of African and Asian children, who are not at school? I most certainly cannot. Even though the facts are remarkable, it doesn’t make me feel in any way engaged. And engagement is what we need in order for people to start taking action! Passion and engagement. Unless we are passionate about something; unless we can really feel that this is important, unless it has relevance and seems like a cause worth engaging in and fighting for, we might superficially appear betrothed in whichever good cause is on the societal agenda – but our engagement isn’t authentic or deeply felt, and hence it is short-lived.
In order to get people involved in the battle against inequality, oppression, unsustainable usage of natural resources, pollution etc. it is of great importance to engage them; they must feel deeply committed in order to act accordingly. In other words, we need sustainable storytelling that creates bonds between people; that is passionate and deeply felt and packed with anecdotes about the consequences that our current consumer-ventures have for people, animals, and nature rather than facts-driven doomsday-descriptions.