by Jourdann Fraser '20
If I asked you to define sustainability, it would probably take you a couple of Google searches to get at the meaning in the context of environmentalism. However, if I mentioned the word climate change or greenhouse gases, you’d probably know what I was talking about. This is one of the main problems with environmentalism. The important issues we need to discuss take too much technical knowledge to understand, and as a result, people aren’t concerned with those issues. The communication problem is a part of a bigger problem in environmentalism: branding.
For the past eight weeks, I’ve been taking a class called the Language of Advertising. Last week we had a guest speaker, David Placek, the founder of Lexicon Branding Inc., talk to us about the importance of branding. Branding is important in the commercial sense because it creates a predisposition to buy a product in the consumer. However, for the purpose of this argument, we’ll modify this definition to be creating the predisposition to participate in environmentalism. One of the reasons for a problem in branding is a lack of communication between the general public and environmental scientists. When there are clear word associations between complex processes and simple phrases like global warming, it makes it easier for the general public to figure out what the problem is and what needs to be solved. Unfortunately, a lot of complex processes cannot be succinctly explained to people, and therefore, there needs to be more innovation in the words we use to communicate to the general public. One great example of this is the innovation of the black hole. It was not until scientists named their discovery a black hole that the news picked up the discovery and spread it like wildfire.
However, these words need to be clearly defined to the general public. A huge problem with the use of words like climate change and global warming is that a lot of people take these words to mean that if the entire world is warming up, then their specific location must be heating up as well. Using analogies further clarifies what these words actually mean in environmental science. Analogies make a clear picture of complex processes, improving the discussion on what the problems are and how we can fix them.
Another thing that needs rebranding in environmentalism is the feelings towards environmentalism. When people hear the phrases “reduce, reuse, recycle” or “beach clean up,” there is usually a negative connotation that comes with it in the sense that these are chores that need to be done. The feelings about the subject, environmentalism, are not much better. Many people associate environmentalism, with alarming, and pessimistic views about the future. Ultimately, we need to change the ways stories are told about environmentalism. Films like Tomorrow and How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change really inspire people to not look at environmentalism in such a bad light. Rather than warning people of the doom and gloom of the world, we need to tell them what they can do to make a small difference in their community, so that they associate environmentalism with a positive emotion.
Another way to change people’s feelings towards environmentalism would be to change the symbols associated with it. Humans tend to process information based on color, shape, and symbol first. The last thing that we process is text because it is the hardest to process. Therefore, symbolism plays an important role when it comes to what people associate with a product, idea, or campaign. One way to reignite the environmentalism brand and make it more of a brand that people are willing to comply with would be to make it more whimsical and joyful. A great example for change would be to create a symbol for composting in order to make it a more recognizable thing that people could easily do in order to help the environment. Think about how the “reduce, reuse, recycle” symbol has become a symbol for sorting waste. Stanford has a great version of this, in which the different types of waste are sorted by color association (brown for compost, blue for paper, and green for plastic and metals).
Finally, I think that environmentalism has to become more personalized and interactive. A huge problem with sustainability is getting people to care about the issues we face. A large percentage of the population may know about climate change and global warming, however, the way information is presented makes it seem as if the problem is not going to happen anytime soon. The problems the Earth will face is not a tangible part of their daily lives, making it more difficult for people to adopt sustainable practices. If we were to find ways to make information about environmentalism more personal to people’s lives, then people would be more likely to change their daily habits.
Environmentalism needs a new brand that is whimsical, hopeful, interactive, personalized, and easy to understand. Through this rebranding, we can not only reach new people with environmentalism, but we can also hopefully change everyone’s habits for the better.
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This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.