When I lived in Austin, Texas, in the late 1990s, I worked for the state environmental agency fielding questions about regulatory compliance from small business presidents. Most of them ran manufacturing operations and were furious about all the regulations they had to follow. I’d listen to their complaints with thoughtful follow-up questions until they felt they were heard and then their tone would change.
“Ma’am, I want to be in compliance. I stay up nights worrying about this. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” During those four years spent working in small business technical assistance I learned how these small business presidents struggled to keep the doors open. Between fulfilling customer orders, marketing, employee health and safety, environmental regulations, taxes and all the other issues they worried about, any efforts to go beyond what was required by law frankly amazed me.
With this perspective I’ve been studying sustainability project managers at small and medium-sized businesses. What does it take to implement an energy efficiency, recycling, paper use reduction or green building project at a small business given all the other activities staff is required to do?
Small businesses have such limited resources compared to larger companies. Fortune 500 companies frequently have a team of people in various departments who are paid to work on sustainability projects. Large corporations often have people with the title Chief Sustainability Officer or Director of Global Sustainability Operations working to embed sustainability throughout the organization.
Multiple conferences, books and websites are dedicated to celebrating large corporate sustainability efforts. Small businesses receive relatively little coverage. Why is this? Partly because the small business executive assistants, marketing managers, and IT staff who lead these projects are squeezing work on them in during lunch hours, after work and on weekends. They care about these projects so much they will give up their free time to do them.
We need more discussion on how we can support small businesses to implement operational efficiency projects, also called sustainability projects. In the U.S., small businesses make up 49.2% of private sector employment. They are the engine of the U.S. economy; the first ones to pull us out of a recession every time.
To accelerate sustainability in the U.S., moving society to a place where humans live in balance with the environment that supports us, we need to help small businesses adopt operational efficiency projects faster. We need to study what conditions support rapid implementation and disseminate those ideas.
Which approach to implementing environmentally beneficial changes motivates people more: a positive or negative approach? Those of us who have done business auditing for recycling, energy efficiency and water conservation struggle with this question. We wonder if it’s better to frame audit findings as “you could save $20,000 per year by implementing this recommendation” or “you will continue wasting $20,000 per year by not implementing this recommendation.” While the positive frame is the norm, auditors wonder if a negative frame might be more effective.
To help answer this question, let’s borrow two different methods for behavioral change, one from the field of organizational development and the other from social marketing.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) springs from the field of organizational development and helps an organization grow from its strengths. People leading appreciative inquiries search for the employees who are extraordinarily productive, people on fire with a sense of purpose. They study the conditions that support these productive staff members’ success so the conditions can be replicated elsewhere in the organization. This process of discovery varies by organization since different variables are in play.
By contrast, the approach to behavioral change called Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM) is more prescriptive. People applying CBSM know what specific sustainable activities they want people to adopt and identify the potential barriers to adopting that behavior change.
Let’s say we want employees to turn off their computers at night to save energy. There may be several reasons why computers are left on:
- people forget,
- they don’t think computers use much energy,
- they don’t know how to change their computer settings,
- IT staff ask people to leave computers on at night so they can install security patches and back up files.
By using prompts and education, as well as systemic changes like moving file storage to the cloud, CBSM practitioners can address and overcome each of these barriers.
Which approach is more effective to behavioral change: AI or CBSM? This depends on the situation. If we have a prescriptive outcome in mind then CBSM may be more effective; whereas if we want to develop an organization-specific solution organically, AI is a good approach.
The “heliotropic hypothesis” borrows its name from the flower called the heliotrope that over the course of a day turns its flowers and leaves toward the sun. This hypothesis states that social forms evolve toward the “light.” Both AI and CBSM seek the sunlight of an effective solution even though they start from different frames.
If you are writing content about important sustainability topics that you hope will show up high on search engine returns, here is a list of the top ten ways to sabotage your hard work on Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
- Cram keywords – Stuff so many keywords into your text that the writing seems stiff and awkward.
- Don’t use keywords in your headers, image caption and text.
- Target the wrong keywords – Use keywords that are not descriptive of your business niche.
- Pay for inbound links – Buy links from sites whose only purpose is to link back to a main site.
- Trade links with irrelevant sites – Build hundreds of links with spammy third-party sites that are unrelated to your core business.
- Copy content – Replicate content within your site and copy content from other sites.
- Post irrelevant ads – Post ads that are in no way related to your site’s theme or content.
- Create page content that does not fit your site theme.
- Forget to create 301 redirects – When you redesign your website don’t create 301 redirects for old pages that will direct search engine spiders to your new pages.
- List your site with spammy online directories - Submit articles to hundreds of online article directories and list your site with thousands of online site directories.
Search engines will discount your site and rank you lower in search returns if you sabotage your site in these ways. A better strategy would be to create fresh, relevant content that can quickly gain popularity in the internet community.
To develop valuable content, think about the kinds of questions your potential audience might have about your topic. An energy efficiency contractor could blog about how the latest solid state lighting works. A green building architect would want to blog about the newest net zero energy buildings. An organic foods company that makes kale chips could blog about the latest health benefits of eating more green vegetables.
The foundation of a strong inbound marketing strategy involves quality content written around well-chosen keywords, posted on a regular basis and introduced through social media. This will help you earn, not buy, those valuable inbound links that help yield the best search engine returns.
This infographic shows the stunningly large losses of mostly preventable food waste at each stage in the life cycle of food. Take a look at each stage: production, storage, processing, retail and consumer. Which foods and which stages result in over 25% food loss?
Let’s say the manager for the food waste reduction program at a county government is thinking of using social media platforms to spread adoption of food waste reduction habits. She is planning to have her team spend hundreds of hours building on-line communities and sharing content on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites. Will their time be well spent? That depends on the team’s strategy and what they expect will result from their efforts.
Adoption of social media by government agencies has been slow in part because measuring programmatic impact through the platforms is difficult. Social media offers multiple channels to promote voluntary government programs but program planners need to make sure they understand what can and cannot be measured on social media sites.
Consider three of the most widely-used platforms (Facebook, Twitter and You Tube) and the ways we can measure breadth, depth, direct engagement, loyalty and user experience.
- Breadth - size of your community and growth (Facebook likes, Twitter followers, YouTube subscribers)
- Depth – amount of traffic and number of click-throughs per day
- Direct engagement – questions answered through social media and response time
- Loyalty - percentage of repeat users
- User experience - positive, negative and neutral engagements; top hashtags and keywords
These metrics offer information about how many people are seeing and sharing your content, which topics are interesting to the on-line community, and how they feel about the content.
To discover what behavior changes among the on-line community resulted from program information dissemination would require more in-depth data collection: interviews, focus groups, questionnaires and surveys. For information about evaluations, NOAA’s Office of Education and Sustainable Development has a useful guide entitled “Designing Evaluation for Education Projects
.” The University of Michigan also has helpful instructions in their program called My Environmental Education Evaluation Resource Assistant (MEERA). Check their page Plan an Evaluation
for more information.
Over the past five years a small brewery in Colorado has whittled away at their waste stream until there was almost nothing left to throw away. In that time their waste diverted from landfill has increased from 80% to 99.8%. Their sustainability manager’s project management skills, communication skills and drive were key to this accomplishment but she also had support in some key areas.
One reason this company is notable is that they implemented one sustainability project with a 75 year return on investment. Projects with such a long ROI do not happen unless there is top management support and an organizational culture committed to creating a sustainable future.
I’ve been wondering which conditions support sustainability project managers’ success in small businesses and recently embarked on a research project to study this question. The 11 indicators listed in the graphic above were what I have observed to make the difference between implementation and a stalled initiative over my 20 years of sustainable project management technical assistance work.
My research project is taking an empirical approach, though. I’m not hypothesis testing. It will be interesting to see what conclusions we can draw from this.
Around the year 2000, social psychologist Douglas McKenzie-Mohr unleashed a transformational concept on the environmental community. The basic idea of Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM) is that if you want to change behavior, you need to understand the barriers to a behavior change and help people address those barriers. The community had been relying on economics and information to achieve lasting change.
If you worked at an energy utility and wanted your customers to adopt energy conservation measures, the conventional wisdom had been that you should spend money on advertising the importance of energy conservation to the public. McKenzie-Mohr found that the $200 million California utilities were spending each year to encourage homeowners to install energy conserving devices and adopt new habits were having little to no effect on energy use.
McKenzie-Mohr studied the use of commitments, incentives, prompts, social norms and vivid communication to alter behavior and found these tools resulted in adoption of energy conserving measures much more than advertising. In one CBSM study, asking for a public commitment to conserve energy resulted in a 15% reduction in natural gas and a 20% reduction in energy use.
By combining the insights of psychology and social marketing, CBSM became a useful tool to the environmental technical assistance providers who were trying to effect positive behavioral change.
More than a decade after the low-tech approach of CBSM was introduced, those of us who do this work are applying these concepts through social media. Social networks, whether in person or on line, link people with common interests. Tap these social networks to find influencers who can help effect positive environmental change among their networks.
The way you find these influencers on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, and in MeetUp groups is to look for people actively sharing, commenting or promoting. People on these sites who:
- have a large number of friends or followers,
- write blog posts then share them,
- “like” the content of others, and
- are the primary point of contact for a group,
are influencing others. Their friends and followers look to them for new ideas and trends.
The way to engage these influencers is to “like” their content and leave affirmative comments. When sharing their content, post the main take away and your supportive view on why this is worth reading. Developing an on-line connection may result in them sharing the content you post that dovetails with their interests.
Once you find influencers with common interests, then the CBSM framework kicks in. The social diffusion of ideas spreads through on-line networks as well as through in-person networks. The key to navigating this new on-line social network is building relationships.
Once you know how to engage influencers through social media, you’ll find it’s a powerful tool for change. Many people want to help our environment are overwhelmed by all the things they know they could be doing but aren’t. And they're busy. Help them cut through the clutter. Show which measures make a difference, share these ideas through social media and build your own on-line community.
If done right, environmentally beneficial behaviors can spread rapidly and widely, much farther than through limited in-person community networks. For more information on CBSM, check out McKenzie-Mohr's website.
The latest terms being tossed around by the sustainable design community reveal how they see their role in building a sustainable future. Resilience was the theme at Compostmodern’s 2013 gathering in San Francisco. The term “resilient system” means one that can accept stress without breaking. Designing for resilience means creating stability in the face of change.
What then is a graphic designer’s role in building resilience? I gathered from the conference that graphic designers see themselves as facilitators. They ask questions that help their clients figure out what they want when sometimes the client doesn’t know what they want. This back and forth process allows the end product to take shape and come to life.
My favorite presentation of the day was from Alex Gilliam with the non-profit Public Workshop. Alex presented his design facilitation work with several teenage girls in a blighted south Chicago neighborhood. Alex provided the woodworking tools and construction materials and asked questions about what the girls wanted to build. Together they transformed an abandoned lot full of broken bottles, beer cans and hypodermic needles. The girls built construction work tables and asked the community to answer the questions “I would love a place to…” They spelled out these words with empty beer cans in the chain link fence in front of the derelict lot. The next day someone had cleaned the trash out of the lot.
The girls started designing a children’s play space. The theme of “Switzerland in Chicago” came to life with string, wood and paint. As they built, they grew more confident in their skills. Neighbors started to stop by and offer help. Someone donated $20. They weren’t even asking for money. The girls raised $200 and finally $1,000. Everyone involved with the project became excited. Through this facilitation, a whimsical, exciting new play scape was built. In this case presenting someone with a handful of questions was more productive than presenting them with imported solutions.
If you want to see Alex’s conference talk, start at 1:50 in the following You Tube post
This is just one example of the power of thoughtful, community-based design. At the conference there were many others. Overall it was interesting to hear speakers alternately lamented the crashing of natural systems and celebrated the building of a new, more resilient world. This seemed disorienting to the audience early in the day but by the end of the day attendees seemed to feel more comfortable holding both contrasting ideas of crashing and building together in our collective minds and embracing the paradox.
Compared to the business community, government agencies have been slow to embrace social media to effect environmental change. This is a tragic lost opportunity. If environmentalists in government want to change behavior and diffuse innovative ideas through a population, then they need to go where social networks are now: online. Given limited budgets, government could be letting social media do the heavy lifting of effecting environmental change for them.
Social media can be a huge time sink if not used strategically. There are so many interesting articles, videos and tweets happening on the internet. An hour can pass in an instant before realizing you forgot what you were looking for. But it’s facile to dismiss social media as a waste of time. You just need to know how to harness it for your goals.
1. Clarify in Your Mind What You Want People to Do
Do you want people to waste less food at home? Explain that consumers end up throwing out 25% of the groceries they buy. Give them five simple tips for reducing food waste at home. Share soup, sauce and smoothie recipes from celebrity chefs that use up those produce items in their fridge that usually go to waste.
Do want people to stop flushing their expired prescription drugs? Explain how these drugs flow right through waste water treatment plants out into waterways untreated. Explain the effects on marine life. Then let them know they can take their expired medicines to the local pharmacy for disposal.
2. Find the Influencers
In any social group, whether on line or in person, there are gatekeepers for ideas. These are the people the mainstreamers in a group look to for new ideas and permission to try something new. If you can convince these gatekeepers that your idea is worth embracing, their influence on others in their group can help tip the idea into the mainstream.
The following graphic, from Alan AtKisson’s book The Isis Agreement: How Sustainability Can Improve Organizational Performance and Transform the World, shows the roles people play in an organization or social group. The individual parts form a greater whole that has a unifying purpose.
The “innovation” in the top right corner is the behavioral change you want people to embrace. You may be the “innovator” who thought up the idea or you may be the “change agent” who is working to encourage adoption of this innovation. The “transformer” is the gatekeeper or influencer to whom the “mainstreamers” of the organization or group look to for new ideas. The “iconoclasts” can be useful to your cause since their role is to point out loudly and with great confidence how inadequate the current way of doing things is.
“Laggards” will come along eventually, after most other people have already adopted the new behavior. Don’t spent time worrying about the “reactionaries” and “curmudgeons.” You can’t please everyone and they will sap your enthusiasm for the project if you engage in argument with them.
3. Create “sticky” content
The lifeblood of social media is interesting and relevant content. Create blog posts, infographics and video content to share that express a clear message about the problem and what you want people to do. The more innovative, positive and inclusive the solution the better.
Many people want to know what they can do to help the environment. Of the hundreds of different steps they could take, given their limited time, what would make a difference? Make a compelling case about why your solution will indeed make a difference.
4. Find the People We Call Gatekeepers, Influencers and Transformers
These wonderful folks are well connected, in person and online. They have many friends and followers on social networks. They may be the main point of contact for in-person social groups. They write a blog. They “like” other people’s content. If you want to engage them, “like” their content and make positive, supportive comments on their content. Promote their content and share your content with them. Start a dialogue. If your content seems relevant to them, they will share it among their social networks.
Try different content formats, styles and approaches. Track which ones were the most popular. Build on your successes.
One very tangible and useful purpose of government is to protect the environment. A system of regulations and enforcement is the best course of action to clean up our land, water and air. More and more, environmental work at the government level is about voluntary programs and partnerships. To be successful spreading innovations with limited budgets, these programs need to do more with less. Social media is a powerful beast that large corporations have used to market products and services. Now let’s leverage it to help build a sustainable future.
In the United States, we waste 40% of the food we grow and raise. From the fields to distribution centers to grocery stores to homes, losses throughout the supply chain are impressive. This means agricultural inputs into the food that's wasted, such as fossil fuel energy and potable water, are being wasted as well. Where does most of the waste happen?
Consider the life cycle of apples from the time they are grown in an orchard until they are consumed by households.
Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data for Fresh Apples, Per Capita, 2005
Buzby, Jean C., “Supermarket Loss Estimates for Fresh Fruit, Vegetables, Meat, Poultry, and Seafood and Their Use in the ERS Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data.” (USDA ERS Report, 2009).
Start with the people picking apples. They make split second decisions about which apples meet the farm’s size, color and overall appearance criteria. Apples are placed into boxes and trucked to distribution centers where boxes are opened for inspections. If too many of the apples fail visual scrutiny, the whole truckload may be rejected. If the driver doesn’t know where the nearest food bank is, all the apples may be trashed so he can continue to his next truckload pickup.
At the grocery store, the produce manager wants to makes sure the store’s displays are perpetually full. An empty display reflects poorly on the store as customers expect visions of abundance in the produce aisle. That is why there is extra produce in the back to make sure they can regularly fill displays. Some produce rots before it can be set out and some individual fruits or vegetables are damaged and will not be used. This is thrown away as well.
The largest amount of produce waste happens in the home, though. About one-quarter of all food we buy, one out of four bags of groceries, ends up wasted. We don’t use all the cilantro or basil before they go turn brown. Strawberries mold, tortilla chips go stale and leftovers end up forgotten in the back of the fridge.
The good news is that much of this food waste is avoidable at each stage of the food supply chain. Looking at food waste from a slightly different perspective will help reduce it. I’ll write more about solutions to food waste in future posts.