Recent articles on sustainability communications have floated the idea that climate-change communicators should avoid using the term “climate-change” in their efforts to increase support for environmental protection, as many people fear that eco-friendly policies are bad for the economy. The sustainability movement purports itself as a brand that is about more than just protecting the planet: going green can also be good for business. Despite sustainability’s success at convincing many business leaders to make their operations more eco-friendly, it is somewhat concerning that people are only willing to support environmental protection when it doesn’t affect profits. Sustainability needs to integrate itself more naturally into traditional economic schools of thought.
Different strategies for environmental advocacy have been varyingly successful, in a way analogous to the often-frustrating process of buying a new car: each car includes some attractive features, while also lacking the important features of the other options. Similarly, some of environmental advocacy strategies have proven too radical, others are perceived as anti-business, and others still remain too cozy with business. “Sustainability” is, in theory, the ‘perfect new car’ of environmental branding. Its goal of satisfying the “3 P’s” (People, Planet, and Profit) is uniquely comprehensive compared to other forms of environmentalism, mainly because of the inclusion of “profit” in its platform goals. Sustainability’s mission is to reduce environmental degradation without reducing the profits of traditional business. But in adopting the “3 P’s” terminology to sell eco-friendly solutions to skeptical or disincentivized businesspeople, are we prolonging the economic world’s undervaluing of our environment? Is sustainability simply applying a ‘band-aid solution’ to climate-change denial? No matter how all-encompassing and action-generating the sustainability brand may become, the ultimate environmental branding strategy must advance a movement beyond short-term solutions toward a long-term shift in the economy’s perception of value.
A recent study at the University of California-Santa Barbara concluded that communicators should avoid using the term “climate change” when advocating for pro-environmental policy changes. The researchers essentially recommended that sustainability communicators hide, or at least play down, the true environmental benefits of their work, in the interest of swaying skeptics to their side. The good news from this study is that the majority of American people support an increase in their respective states’ renewable energy portfolio. However, as with any American policy debate, this support is tied strongly to economics. Support for renewable energy technologies is high, as long as their implementation will deliver equal or reduced energy costs to consumers. But when respondents were asked about an energy cost increase of just $2 per month, support for renewable energy dropped by 13%. Increase the cost by $10 per month, and it is likely that the majority of US states would oppose renewables.
Without doubt, sustainability branding is an excellent way to bring money-minded people on board with environmentalism. Sustainability solutions are the ultimate mutually-beneficial solution: maintain or increase profits while simultaneously reducing environmental impact. However, the fact that many people will withhold support for environmentalism without a strong economic incentive suggests a greater problem in our overall value system: people prioritize the vague, individualistic concept of money over their communities’ and their planet’s greatest natural resources. To any rational human who steps back from the world we have built, there is nothing more valuable than an habitable environment with clean air, fresh water, and healthy food. Without this basic habitat, all of the things we would rather spend money on (cars, vacations, the internet, etc.) would never exist, and could vanish before our eyes if we fail to make rapid progress in environmental protection. This can be achieved through economic changes, but such changes should not cloud our appreciation and respect for nature.
Regardless of one’s business interests, every human being should understand and accept the scientific premise of climate change. It’s one thing to make a legitimate business case for reducing environmental regulations, while still acknowledging the evidence that humans are contributing to global climate change. Outright denying this near-universally affirmed concept, though, is unacceptable. Given the slow pace of implementing change in business and politics, mitigating climate change requires careful, strategic communication that will encourage compromise between business people and environmental scientists. It also will require a basic universal education about environmental science.
From a scientific perspective, even the unspoken agreement to use the term “climate change” instead of “global warming” was a challenging compromise. To those who deny or misunderstand climate science, “global warming” is a preposterous concept. “How could the globe be warming when we have snow in April?!” they ask. [Recall when Sen. James Inhofe brought a snowball to the Senate floor to demonstrate his skepticism of headlines declaring 2014 as the warmest year on record.] While the terms “global warming” and “climate change” are closely related (essentially through cause and effect), these terms have been used interchangeably for years, likely the result of intentional propagation. In a memo to Bush administration officials that leaked in 2003, renowned Republican strategist Frank Luntz advised communicators to talk about “climate change” instead of “global warming,” as the former sounds less frightening and more solvable. This mixing of terminology succeeds at undermining the credibility of environmentalism, as it makes those who talk about global warming seem like extremists. Similarly, it is concerning that environmentalism needs to be sold on the merits of economic growth rather than as a case of simple science and human wellbeing.
In 2017, the overall fear looks something like this: if sustainability branding is unable to convince people to properly value the environment as a precious entity of its own, it may fail to achieve its original goal of making an economic case for environmentalism. Donald Trump has been espousing for years that climate change is a “Chinese hoax,” engineered to bring down the booming oil and gas industries of the United States. A slew of top-level conservative voices have joined Trump’s crusade to completely deny the evidence affirmed by 97% of accredited scientists that climate change, or global warming, is real, and poses a serious threat to all of Earth’s inhabitants.
Sustainability operates on the idea that such deniers can be convinced to change their opposition after learning that pro-environment policies could be neutral or beneficial for business. But allow us to step back from the daily storylines, now rife with sustainability branding, and ask ourselves the following questions: Should we be concerned that our leaders need to ‘see the money’ before they get on board with protecting the most valuable resources known to humanity? Or should we embrace the incremental progress that can be made with sustainability, and allow a significant number of thought leaders to remain ignorant and, therefore additionally toxic?
Ben Pitler is the Sustainable Now Communications Intern at Sustainable Capital Advisors. He completed a BA in Public Communication at American University, where he is now in the midst of pursuing a MS in Sustainability Management.