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Sustainability by stealth

How do we effectively communicate sustainability for lasting change?

In this article, John Mulholland, John Mulholandour Associate Consultant, explains eight key principles for success and gives real life examples to illustrate them.

John has 30 years’ experience of designing and running energy/environmental awareness campaigns and is the leading UK authority on this aspect of change management.

He covers the following topics:

  • The eight principles
  • Engage people by listening, not by hectoring, haranguing and inducing guilt
  • Be positive about the future
  • Avoid the long term
  • Don’t rely on reason
  • Apply the principle of obliquity
  • Find out what motivates people at a personal level
  • Make sustainable choices easier
  • Make it fun

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The eight principles

I know from my experience of designing and running energy awareness campaigns that the best ways to communicate about sustainability are often not what we think they are and we should think carefully before engaging with employees.

A few years ago a blog by David Pencheon caught my eye. It was called Sustainability by Stealth – 8 steps to heaven and I expand on those principles below. The author, a public health doctor who was Director of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, based his thoughts on the paper Sustainability by Stealth: four ways to make sustainability more attractive by Dror Etzion, Assistant Professor, McGill University.

Engage people by listening, not hectoring, haranguing and inducing guilt

We have all experienced what it is like to be at the receiving end of negativity. We simply switch off and will often do exactly the opposite of the advice we are being given because we dislike the attitude and approach. The speaker has forgotten that it is easier to pull wet spaghetti than to push it and the message is lost.

Listening3450_insight-9-pic1 - - becky implies genuine interest and partnership in resolving common issues. In his book, To Understand Each Other, Paul Tournier says: “We can never over-emphasise the immense need every individual has to be listened to, taken seriously and be understood.”

Also listening gives us useful information on further opportunities. For this reason any awareness/training seminars need to be largely interactive. People stay awake; they contribute, take ownership and find the process lively and enjoyable. They become more engaged. This may seem an obvious point but few people do it.

Be positive about the future

We could be forgiven for thinking that climate change has been resolved because it is no longer seen much in the media and the Government has its focus on more short-term issues with an eye on the next election. However, there is great danger in playing the ‘doomsday’ card to scare people by showing global impacts of climate change. If we read the science it can be very depressing especially when we look at population growth and biodiversity losses predicted for the next 40 years.

Not only do we need to be positive about the future but keep it local and within conceptual grasp of daily life. For example, back in 2012, the University of St Andrews had a vision of becoming carbon neutral by 2016. It was a positive message and was not far into the future. It is certainly more motivating than: “Cut emissions now or 50% of the world will die by 2050”. Messages like these induce a paralysis. As Pencheon said: "Martin Luther King did not say: “I have a nightmare”". So we need to frame the future carefully with a positive vision.

Avoid the long term

Long term planning is important but in communicating sustainability we need to bring things into the present and the near future. That is why the example from St Andrews is inspiring. If the University said it wanted to be zero carbon by 2060, most people would say: “I won’t be around. So I’ll pass that challenge to future generations. Good luck to them.”

Don’t rely on reason

A reliance on reason and logic to induce behaviour change is dangerous because, as humans, our decisions and judgements are less based on logic and values than we would like to think - and more on emotions, the misinterpretation of data and skewed ideas about reality. Nobel Prize Winner, David Kahneman, addresses many of the reasons for this in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Many organisations have the view that “we don’t do emotions at work”. The problem is that they forget their employees are human beings. They treat their employees like machines and then are surprised to find they are difficult to engage with and motivate.

A good example of tapping into emotions and goodwill is a food manufacturer who pledged to donate 20% of the savings from an energy saving campaign to a charity. The charity was chosen by the employees and the majority voted for a local hospice.

Apply the principle of Obliquity

Very3450_insight9-pic-2 - - becky often, challenging goals can be best achieved indirectly. The principle has been known for many years but popularised by John Kay’s book Obliquity. Going from A to B via C can be faster and more effective. The oblique angle at C in the diagram gives rise to the name of the principle.

Examples abound when communicating on sustainability. Often we identify an opportunity and want people to take the specific action to be more sustainable. So we work backwards and frame an environmental message as a means of getting a change of environmental behaviour.

A good example is encouraging hotel guests to reuse their towels if staying in the hotel more than one night. Conventional environmental messages achieved reuse rates of 40% in a study by Goldstein, Martin and Caldini reported in Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive. But in a controlled experiment when they changed the message to: Did you know the majority of guests in this hotel reuse their towels if staying for more than one night? "Did you know the reuse rate is increased to 67%."

I quoted this example at a seminar recently and asked delegates why. One replied “Because we are sheep”. We have an innate feeling of wanting to be mainstream or normal. The important point is that an environmental message is often not the best means of achieving environmental behaviour change. Social norming can be more effective.

Find out what motivates people at a personal level

It is good to find out what motivates people but often it is best not to use the word “motivate”. Words such as “like”, “prefer” and “enjoy” make people less self-conscious.  Sometimes on a plane or train journey I ask people if they have read any good books or seen any films recently which made them think. It is interesting to see what comes back. Their motivations show themselves quite quickly.

One of the problems with most organisations is that they unintentionally demotivate employees. If you ask people to write down what they like about their organisation, the list is short relative to the list of dislikes. One way to get people motivated is to identify and reduce or remove factors which demotivate. When people are generally more motivated they are likely to be more specifically motivated to engage on sustainability issues. The reverse is also true.

I 3450_insight9-pic3 - - beckywas once called to a hotel where the chef had made significant energy and water savings in the catering department. Gas consumption was down 41% and electricity down by 24% through increased staff awareness. The chef, Carlos, said the management were delighted by the cost reductions but said that he was motivated by other factors. At this point Carlos had my full attention. “What factors?” I asked.

Carlos replied that since the training the gas wastage was cut so the kitchen was cooler. This meant tempers were less frayed with less plates flying. This in turn meant better teamwork, less turnover, less recruiting and training costs and the quality of the food had increased. Energy saving was good because it made his life easier and more rewarding. To cap it all Carlos had been asking for two new combi ovens for three years and because the sub-metering proved his savings were greater than other parts of the hotel, the management team made his ovens an investment priority and they had arrived the week before my visit. Each oven was more efficient and delivered 50% savings. “So it was win-win-win for everyone”.

Sometimes saving energy has unintended consequences as in this example. The challenge is to identify some of these benefits before they happen.

Make sustainable choices easier

I 3450_insight9-pic4 - - beckywas in a company recently which significantly reduced paper use. In the past people would click ‘print’ and go to a large printer in the corner of the office to collect their documents but often people forgot to do so. So the settings were changed on the copier so when an employee arrived at the copier they had to swipe their ID for the printing to start. Paper consumption reduced by 50% which begs the question: “Was all that printing in the past really necessary?”

A Local Authority in Scotland had diesel pool cars and had invested in 20 new electric3450_insght9-5 - - becky vehicles and were wondering how they could persuade employees to use the new electric cars in preference to the diesel option. To their surprise they did not need to persuade the staff who did it anyway. When they enquired why, they discovered the electric cars were more spacious and had better acceleration than the diesel. Unwittingly they had made the more sustainable option easier.

Make it fun

Making it fun rather than painful helps the behaviour to become a norm. In a chain of 5 star hotels in London, environmental performance is measured and the best performing hotels are given special recognition and reward. The staff enjoy the competition and feel appreciated for their efforts. There is a social dimension which the staff find engaging.


Human behaviour is complex, irrational and often unpredictable. This should make us ask if the way we think we are communicating is actually effective. These eight principles might not bring total success but will certainly help us avoid errors which can blunt our effectiveness.

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