Sustainable storytelling

There is something wrong with storytelling on sustainability, and it is not only greenwashing. Most stories that are told don’t feel feel relevant – they just feel, well, insignificant. and on top hereof, their wording often feels a bit like the way you would speak when trying to get an unruly child to eat properly: lots of raised index fingres and lots of don’ts; no, no, no (tsk tsk tsk):

“Don’t use plastic bags”; “Don’t travel by airplane”; “Don’t buy fast fashion.”

There are rarely immediate alternatives provided, and the consequences of not stopping our plastic-bag use, fast airplane travel, fashion-based behaviour is linked to doomsday scenarios: starving polar bears, melting poles, an increase in earthquakes and other natural disasters like heatwaves and ice storms, etc.

To the common consumer, drawing a line between buying that 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—difficult. Relevance is the key word here. Relevance and applicability. Unless you feel that what is served to you in the immense stream of information that bombards us daily is relevant to you as well as applicable to your life, you will most likely not feel inclined to act accordingly. Understandably so, actually.

There is something wrong with the way the importance of acting and consuming sustainably is communicated. Maybe that is part of the reason why only a small percentage of consumers are reducing consumption radically. The stories told must resonate with people in order to be persuasive. A large part of the problem is also that changing consumer habits is inconvenient and difficult, but perhaps if the general consumer felt more empowered—if s/he felt the action would make a difference; if it was apparent that there is indeed a link between dying marine life and unsustainable shopping habits; and that by altering habits by reducing fast fashion purchases and investing in more crafts products and generally buying less, but better, more resilient products s/he would make a difference—I believe that we would see a greater number of consumers altering their current practices radically.

This point highlights the importance of no-nonsense, empowering, emotion-stirring, resilient, sustainable communication.


Values and beliefs

The problem with communication on sustainability is that it often originates—and ends—in companies’ and organisations’ sustainability strategies and goals. These tend to be too abstract, broad, and rational, which makes it very difficult to write applicable, relevant, touching stories that call for action.

An example of very abstract and broad sustainability goals is UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs) to be reached by 2030. The goals are ambitious, which is not a bad thing. We are in need of ambitious objectives regarding sustainability, equality, and environmental issues at the moment. However, the SDGs are virtually impossible to grasp and measure. And, they are difficult for a designer to work with and implement in product solutions that can encourage sustainable behaviour.

Let me exemplify my point by highlighting and analysing some of the SDGs.

Beneath each of the SDGs an array of targets is listed, which is actually a great way to concretise abstract and theoretical objectives. However, the target points are not in any way concrete. If you, for example, take a look at goal number five: Gender Equality, and click on 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. Under number seven: Affordable and Clean Energy, the first target point you will find is:

“By 2030, ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services.”

Universal access? Affordable? Modern? These terms are all extremely abstract. What is affordable? I guess that depends on a lot of things, and on where and who you are. What does modern mean? Up-to date? State of the art? High-tech? When one uses terms that are this broad there is a risk of miscommunication, or at least of not getting an important message through, 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 listed here is not a suitable way of doing so. A word like modern contains too many connotations and meanings, and it will be open to many individual interpretations. An option is a concept definition, or even better; a different, more distinct word.
Furthermore, as above mentioned, goals must be reachable, which is why aiming for universal access might be slightly farfetched—even given the fairly long timeframe.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. But, if that is the case, then why not state it like that in order to make the goal more understandable and reachable? The goals would be more clear, plausible, and usable if they were made concrete and accessible.

Communication on sustainability, equality, and environment tends to be too intellectual and non-concrete—as well as way too facts-based and non-emotional. An example of the lack of ability to make the goals feel applicable is SDG number four: Quality Education. Underneath each of the goals you will find the progress that has been made toward reaching the goals by 2030, which in itself is brilliant, but the information is very rational, and packed with facts. Furthermore, this specific goal (alongside many of the others as well, of course) has been greatly affected by the COVID-pandemic. Progress of goal four in 2022 hence starts like this:

“The COVID-19 outbreak has caused a global education crisis. Most education systems in the world have been severely affected by education disruptions and have faced unprecedented challenges. School closures brought on by the pandemic have had devastating consequences for children’s learning and well-being. It is estimated that 147 million children missed more than half of their in-class instruction over the past two years. This generation of children could lose a combined total of $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value. School closures have affected girls, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, those living in rural areas, children with disabilities and children from ethnic minorities more than their peers.”

As devastating as this all is, I am not feeling any engagement. I feel upset about it, of course, devastated even. But even though the facts are shocking, it doesn’t make me feel engaged in any way, I just feel powerless; what do to?! Where to start?!

It all feels disastrous and way too big.

However, action is what we need. Action, passion, and engagement.

Unless we are passionate about something; unless it feels relevant and applicable, and perhaps most importantly, possible to do something about, our engagement will typically be short-lived.

Storytelling on sustainability (and education, equality etc.) needs to be personal, applicable, and empowering. Rather than rattling off discouraging facts about the state of the world, more stories that create transparency about the personal consequences for specific, tangible individuals, and stories about solutions and alternative ways of life that feel nourishing, inspiring and empowering needed.

Within communication about sustainability and environmental issues there are manifold alienating terms such as biodiversity, natural resources, ecosystem, permaculture, environment etc. Terms like these are so abstract, conceptual, and nonfigurative that they mean nothing to the majority of people. They create no internal images, or if they do, they are likely diffuse, diluted, and non-expressive. In order to make people want to act—to get out of their easy chairs and change their convenient habits in the name of environmental issues—communication on sustainability must be more engaging, vivid, and personal.

Pictures must be created in the minds of the audience; emotions must be awoken; we must feel the consequences of our current consumerism and use-and-throw-away-mentality rather than rationally understand it. Companies and organisations need to talk more about values and beliefs and less about facts in order to encourage sustainable change.

And, this is where Aristotle’s forms of appeal become relevant. As ancient as they are.


Sustainable forms of appeal

The theory of persuasion is created by Aristotle nearly two and a half thousand years ago. Aristotle operates in his Rhetoric with three central forms of appeal to be used when seeking to influence one’s reader, listener, or receiver:

ethos, pathos, and logos

Both pathos and ethos appeal to the recipient’s emotions, though in different ways: pathos awakens passionate emotions, whereas ethos is an ethical form of appeal, and hence pleas to the receiver’s virtue and moral. Logos differs by appealing to the recipient’s reason.

The theory of the forms of appeal was originally written for the speechwriter, and outlines how to create a persuasive public speech and present a compelling argument. However, the points made in Rhetoric can be beneficially used when generating a convincing, sustainable (design) argument as well. If a speech—or a designed object or concept for that matter—is experienced as being relevant it has an effect on its audience.

A central point to note from Rhetoric is that one should ideally make use of all three forms of appeal, and that doing so requires a thorough understanding of the recipient. This basically underlines the fact that if you do not know who you are addressing it is next to impossible to convince them to act in accordance with your message, and, if one tries to convince everybody by speaking broadly and generally without anchoring and concretising one’s points, relevance and applicability fails to appear, which might be the problem with the aforementioned SDGs.

The importance of making use of all three ways of persuasion becomes clear, when diving further into an understanding of each form of appeal. Ethos concerns the speaker—or the designer or sender of the product. Ethos is built up when the speaker appears trustworthy and virtuous. Pathos is related to the audience. When the pathos argument is well-composed it arouses strong momentary feelings within the receiver. Logos appeals to the recipient’s reason and is linked to the topic or the cause of the speech—rather than to the speaker or the audience. In relation to the sustainable-design argument the logos appeal could involve facts about the design-object or “nerdy,” technical details.

Logos is a strong form of appeal, as it can be experienced as very convincing to get the “hard facts” about something present- ed. Most politicians make use of logos when they serve percentages on economic growth (or decline), unemployment, or welfare as hard-hitting arguments in a political dispute. In relation to general communication about sustainability and environment, logos is also widely used: facts about CO2 emissions, statistics on global warming, climate refugees, and numbers regarding the loss of biodiverse areas are communicated in a matter-of-fact kind of way. Importantly though, Aristotle stresses the point that one should never use logos as the only form of appeal, as rattling off facts tends to bore the audience, and thus have no effect. Logos must be combined with at least one of the emotional forms of appeal—pathos or ethos—and ideally with both.

A good way of gaining insight into Aristotle’s forms of appeal is sitting down and listening to a bunch of TED talks. Quickly you will notice that the ones that work—that are captivating and compelling—are not necessarily the ones aligned with your areas of interest, but rather the ones that make use of all three forms of appeal. The speaker offers an insight into her or his life story and actions—establishing ethos; you feel sympathy with the speaker and closeness. Important and well-documented facts about what happened or about the cause that the speaker is passionate about are explained—convincing using logos to build up. And lastly, you—the audience—are drawn in, and you are touched or moved in some way. Maybe you feel sad, angry, or happy, and the limits and the distance between you and the speaker are momentarily eliminated. Pathos is aroused within you.

In order to get someone involved in the battle against inequality, oppression, unsustainable usage of natural resources, pollution, animal cruelty, etc., it is important to engage by evoking pathos; one must feel committed and passionate in order to act accordingly and feel that their actions matter—that every reduction of consumption, every ethical purchase, every heartfelt donation, and every choice not to use single-use plastic matters. If you feel that your actions are insignificant, which can very well happen when faced with massive world problems like climate chang- es, floating plastic islands, and polluted burning rivers, you will naturally be less inclined to change your unfortunate habits than if you feel that every sustainable attempt is an important and meaningful step in the right direction.

Another important point regarding pathos appeal is that it is a way of drawing a direct line between facts and action: this is how it is, and this is what needs to be done, now! And, furthermore, this is how you as an individual can do it. Pathos encourages immediate action.

The benefit of small-scale improvements could constructively be incorporated in the communication on sustainable living. Underlining the impact that we all have, just by choosing to purchase something or not, or by eating meat or not, or by using our right to civil disobedience and reacting if we experience oppressive behaviour by questioning it, is one way of communicating in a more down-to-earth and heart-felt way about sustainability and ethics. Another way is telling stories of the people behind the products we buy: the hands that create them, and the minds that conceive them. Such stories increase transparency.

The more presence a story can create between a design-object and user, the more inclined the user will be to take care the object.

We need stories or anecdotes packed with the tangible consequences of our current consumer ventures rather than fact-driven doomsday descriptions. We need stories about the people that create the products we mindlessly buy that can create transparency. We need presence rather than distance. Distance leads to detachment, detachment leads to indifference, and indifference leads to irrational consumption. It is so easy to forget about the underpaid workers in the sweatshop in Bangladesh when you enjoy your cheap, trendy new dress—harvesting approving gazes from peers and feeling fashionable and fresh, without having spent very much money.

Establishing a link between the underpaid worker and the feel-good dress as a part of the consumer-situation is next to impossible. However, we need to be reminded of that link, and initiatives like Fashion Revolution, founded by sustainable fashion campaigners Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro, do exactly that.

The Fashion Revolution was started as a result of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh on the 24th of April 2013 (yes, it will be ten years ago this year). There were five clothes factories in the Rana Plaza, all manufacturing clothes for big global fast fashion brands. After rescue efforts en- sued, 1,138 people died and 2,500 people were injured, most of them young women.

Fashion Revolution believes that the most important step toward positive change in the fashion industry and more conscious and ethical consumption is transparency. And so, the revolutionary team behind Fashion Revolution encourages people to wonder and ask, “Who made my clothes?” by posting pictures of themselves on social media wearing clothes inside-out while tagging fast fashion brands and asking them this question tagged with #who made my clothes.

To date there are hundreds of thousands of posts on Instagram with the hashtag. The campaign creates an acute bond between the consumer and the maker, a bond that is crucial in order to decrease the distance between the consumer in the fast fashion store—who is about to buy yet another cheap dress—and the worker in the Bangladeshi factory who is working twelve hours a day for next to nothing.
This transparency logic is based on a simple supply and demand reasoning: if fewer consumers buy cheap, fast-fashion items because of increased awareness about the consequences of these purchases, and simultaneously make the big brands aware that they are no longer interested in buying unethically produced items, the brands will be forced to alter their business models and improve working conditions in the clothing manufacturing industry.

Fashion Revolution takes this a step further and encourages farmers, factory workers, artisans, and makers to create a response to the consumers’ question by posting a photo of themselves with the tag #I made your clothes. Suddenly photos of workers, artisans, and farmers from all over the world are popping up on social media, creating stories about the proud, skilled people and the—at times poor—living conditions that our seemingly innocent consumer-ventures affect. There is a lot of inspiring pathos and so much ethos in those stories.

Activism can generally be very inspiring when working with sustainable storytelling intended to make people act or alter unfortunate behaviour, because the core of activism is to promote change.

If you want more on this topic, you can read much more about sustainable storytelling in my book Anti-trend.

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