At Gigantic, we work hard to “get inside the heads” of the audiences we try to reach. How difficult is it to get someone to change behavior, even to be aware of that behavior? I experimented on myself last month, when I joined the #PlasticFreeJuly movement, and tried to avoid buying or accepting anything made of plastic for 31 days.
The first thing I noticed was anxiety, and a tendency to over-compensate. Should I stock up on plastic on June 30 so I could get through the month comfortably? What would I have to give up? Just how uncomfortable is this change going to be?
How can a behavior change specialist address her own fears of change and scarcity?
The Thrill of Failure
My first day was a failure, but also a tremendous success. I went out to lunch and ordered a cocktail (it’s OK, it was a Saturday!) The drink came with a straw – I had forgotten to ask for no straw. Disaster in the first few hours of the experiment! I posted about my personal failure to Facebook and Twitter, tagging the restaurant. I was amazed to see several supportive comments, even from “non-green” people with whom I had not interacted in years, saying they, too, were sick of plastic and that I should keep trying. Then, lo and behold, the restaurant responded to me via Facebook, saying that they, too, loved this particular cocktail and from now on would serve it without a straw. Victory! I took away from this experience that it can be more effective to post about one’s own weakness, to acknowledge error, rather than trying to be a brave and mighty eco-hero.
Challenges kept on coming throughout the month. In some cases there were joyous substitutions – I discovered that bread sliced at the bakery and wrapped in paper did just fine in the freezer, so breakfast was set.
Plastic = Convenience
As the month wore on, I realized that plastic equals convenience, and that I had to re-align my idea of what was convenient. Yes, it takes longer to bring your own containers and use the bulk bins of the market. It takes more effort to go to the cheese shop where the owner was happy to wrap my slices in paper – not an option at the supermarket. On the flip side, I had wonderful conversations with folks behind the counter; some were bemused by my requests, some were delighted. But this was an opportunity to connect with people in my neighborhood whom I had, frankly, barely noticed before. How to translate this greater feeling of community to our work?
When To Give Up
In some cases, going plastic-free meant going without. Tortillas and potato chips, indeed all salty junk food, were not an option, unless ordered in a restaurant. I had to cheat in a couple of instances, choosing less plastic over no plastic for things like toothpaste and olive oil. Luckily I don’t take a lot of medicines, but when I ran out of Vitamin D…I caved and bought more in a plastic bottle. I noticed the feeling of guilt and this time I did not share my “failure.”
It’s August now, and I have relented a bit, but the plastic-free exercise has stuck with me. The main thing I took away from July was a heightened awareness of plastic’s never ending presence in our lives. Entire aisles of the supermarket were off limits – which after a while felt quite restful. Connecting this ubiquity with the fact that of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever made, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste, with no end in sight. After this experiment, I am reminded as we plan campaigns that in many cases we are asking people to change, to give up something, to be inconvenienced. These are big asks. While these changes seem essential and even joyful to those of us in the environmental field, I believe it is essential to integrate humility and understanding into our campaigns, so that people feel understood and supported as we travel together on this journey to more sustainable living.
Effective environmental behavior change—like any behavior change—relies on meeting people where they are. This can mean communicating at the point of action, right where and when the behavior is happening. For instance, a recycling flyer sent to a resident’s home is a fine first touch to raise awareness, but placing recycling information directly on the bins or in the area where trash is being disposed of is an important prompt that is likely to get the best results.
What is the most effective way to display recycling/composting information? While each case is different, there are some general rules that will help increase recycling/composting while reducing contamination:
Use consistent language.
Do you say Carts or Bins? Compost or Organics? Make sure the terms you’ve chosen are used consistently in all your print pieces, including posters and bin labels, and also match the content on your website.
Use pictures and words.
Different people learn and remember differently – some people recall words, others, images. Using both will increase your chances of being clear and memorable. Remember that posters are typically viewed from a some distance away, so make sure images and text are sized large enough.
You probably don’t want to list EVERY single item that can go into the recycling or compost. Choose most common items or those often placed incorrectly. The selection of items also depends on where the poster will be used—items recycled in an office are likely different from those recycled in a restaurant kitchen.
Keep it neat.
A clean and simple layout is most likely to keep the focus on proper sorting. If a poster has too much information it may be perceived as too much effort to understand and get ignored. If you’d like to point to details, include your website URL prominently.
Stay up to date!
Did bin colors change with the new hauler contract, or are you now accepting some items for recycling that you weren’t before? Make sure your print and online collateral match your current program.
For further tips on displaying recycling information, see
A constant challenge in environmental outreach is how to portray an issue in a way that reaches people with varied worldviews. Neuroscientist George Lakoff and the concept of framing has been much in the political news lately, as opposing sides try to create impressions (also known as bias) in their listeners’ minds. Lakoff notes that all communication has frames:
“The elements of the Communication Frame include: A message, an audience, a messenger, a medium, images, a context, and especially, higher-level moral and conceptual frames.”
We know that facts alone don’t change behavior; to succeed, a message needs that emotional element that reaches the deeper parts of our brain. How can environmental outreach frame important issues in a way that reaches, convinces, and persists to make long-term positive change in behavior?
Lakoff gives one example in his blog, suggesting that instead of talking about environmental regulations, we reframe laws as environmental protections.
Framing a concept like food waste should be simple – no one likes “waste,” right?
The message of buying only what you need, using leftovers, and composting what is left is quite straightforward, but we have a long way to go to tackle the huge amount of food that is wasted. Two recent examples show how framing the issue, while acknowledging the facts, can show success.
Activist Selina Juul has worked for years on a multi-touch approach to reducing food waste in her adopted country of Denmark. She recognized that change had to come from all sides: business, government and, most of all, consumers. In this video, she reframes food waste as disrespectful to nature, farmers and to the individual’s own time and money.
Ugly? No, Beautiful!
A more local success story focuses on our friend and colleague Jordan Figueiredo. Jordan’s Ugly Fruit and Veg campaign aims to reframe frequently wasted, less than perfect produce with humor and heart, in order to make what had been rejected, acceptable and even coveted.
Jordan couches his multi-touch campaign work as Funactivism, which counters the view some hold of activists as overly serious or shrill. Jordan successfully uses many of the tools of activism and behavior change: touting simple individual steps, assurance that individual actions make a difference, use of pledges and norming, combined with a top-down approach to companies. He has used charming photos spread via social media to challenge people to change their attitudes about what is “ugly,” reframing ugly fruit and vegetables, and by extension, reframing our view of what is beautiful.
Choosing the most effective way to frame an issue takes research, patience and testing. Most of all, it takes creativity and always remembering that change comes from within, and people act because of what they feel even more than because of what they think.
How will you frame your next campaign?
It’s easy to fall into a rut with environmental outreach tools (websites, brochures, bill inserts, how-to-recycle guides, etc.) But even the smallest touch-up can really help make a piece become more effective. In preparation for the recent California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) annual conference, the Gigantic team put out a call to our email list, asking for samples of outreach materials that were ready for a makeover. We selected two submissions – the City of Fremont’s multi-family recycling guide and the Conservation Corps North Bay’s services flyer, and got to work.
See the results in the presentation below. In doing these makeovers, a few key takeaways emerged that we’d like to share:
1) Tailor by Audience – Often agencies and organizations don’t have the resources to make separate pieces for each audience (for example, multi-family building residents and property managers), but you can use visual cues and wording to clarify to whom you are speaking within a piece.
2) Give a Clear Call to Action – Laundry lists of do’s and don’t’s can make people’s eyes glaze over. Single, clear action steps are more likely to get results.
3) Use Clear Instructions – There are some best practices for information such as waste sorting guides: use color coding, group images by type, and don’t overlap images – the brain takes in the shape of an uncluttered image and retains it better.
4) Tell Your Story – Stories stick. Make your messages come alive with vivid words and images, and beware of jargon and “internal speak.” Investing in custom photography with “real” community members pays off, as people see themselves in your outreach and are more likely to respond.
5) Be Consistent and Multi-Touch – No single brochure, no matter how well designed, can do all the work. Your message will go farther when all communication pieces work together visually and verbally, reinforcing your message across channels.
If your organization needs an outreach makeover, feel free to contact us and let’s see what we can do together!
Last Thursday, October 8, we opened our Gigantic doors to host a diverse group of visitors interested in learning more about us and our work as part of the NewCo Festival. NewCo engages companies with an innovative mission to share their vision and ideas with festival attendees. This year, the event expanded from San Francisco to include Oakland for the first time, and we are so proud to have been selected to participate as a host company. Host businesses include small, specialized groups like us, along with big players like Twitter, Pandora, Uber, and everything in between. NewCo is an inspiring event, and a great way to share ideas across business disciplines, as our attendees were from well-known tech companies, a university, an online retailer and more.
Surprisingly, preparing this presentation became a bit of a trip down memory lane for me. I realized the history of Gigantic’s founding and early development is intertwined with the advent of recycling, the tipping point of green as mainstream, and the rise of social science research on how to change behaviors related to environment and sustainability—and this made a cool story. It was great to meet people interested in taking the latest ideas and techniques back to their workplaces to inspire change. Here is the presentation:
This post is the second in a three-part series summarizing our presentation on messaging at this year’s California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) conference: “Not Just the Facts, Ma’am: Getting Your Message to Matter.”
Which is more powerful: presenting environmental facts and a call to action in a bullet-point list, or embedding them in a narrative? As you may have guessed, the latter! Stories help us understand cause and effect and how things fit together. They also let us access emotions, making the message more memorable.
Storytelling has been part of the human experience for a very long time—just think of the narratives depicted in prehistoric cave paintings. The human brain has evolved to work in narrative structures; it’s how we make sense of the world.
To understand what makes storytelling so effective, let’s look at what happens in the brain. When we absorb facts, the brain gets activated in the areas responsible for language recognition and decoding words into meaning. However, when we listen to a narrative, additional areas in the brain show activity: those responsible for directing physical motion and tracking sensations. For example, when we hear metaphors like “he had leathery hands,” the brain’s sensory cortex — which perceives texture through touch — is stimulated. And the more parts of our brains are engaged, the better our attention and recall.
How can we use these insights in environmental outreach work? There are many ways to weave in narratives. For example, use positive stories about real people to promote a behavior. It may take a bit of research to find the right “hero” for your story, but you can’t beat the persuasive value (and norming effect!) of a local couple sharing their enthusiasm about, say, cooking with leftovers, along with tips in their own words and a photo showing them having fun in the kitchen while reducing waste.
If you’re dealing with frequent barriers to practices you’re trying to promote, try a “success story” of somebody who has overcome these challenges. Their authentic voice and the emotional connection their story can make with your audience will be more effective than any list of facts.
Haulers, waste agencies and environmental outreach professionals have been working for decades to improve the U.S. recycling rate, yet overall the country’s recycling rate is around 34 percent – so there is much room for improvement.
Part of the challenge that we see is putting the emphasis on operational facts before attracting people with an emotional appeal. Search for “recycling” in YouTube and you get almost 900,000 results. Most of the top hits focus on how to recycle. Some examine if it works, or problems with recycling. But very few focus on why people should recycle, which is a very important factor in encouraging behavior change. In fact, the video results indicate how we take recycling for granted, assuming everyone is already on board and participating. The truth is, even with established behavioral practices, it helps to periodically boost morale with a new appeal that is fun, moving, or otherwise stirs our feelings.
There’s a kind of taxonomy that emerges if you look at enough videos that encourage recycling. Here are some categories with examples of different approaches, mostly light-hearted, that aim to increase recycling and composting activities:
“Here’s What to Do”
This is a classic “what goes where” video from Livonia, Michigan. The viewer is given no context, no appeal to emotion, just “this is what to do.” (And it’s not so simple, either!). While the information is important, the delivery could be more compelling:
Hot Tunes and Celebrity Sightings
This 1991 classic from an earlier time of recycling outreach has action-packed celebrity sightings and groovy music in an attempt to make recycling cool. The video played on MTV and in move houses and was part of an integrated campaign by the Take it Back Foundation that included classroom curricula and the development of a resolution introduced to the House and Senate to declare April 15 “National Recycling Day.” It’s a great example of use of using a catchy campaign to increase awareness. (Bonus – how many of the celebs can you name?)
This Cal Recycle video combines humor and a self-deprecating celebrity “endorsement” from Ed Begley Jr., as the public is shown that you don’t have to be a star to make a difference.
Some campaigns take the point of view of the stuff being recycled rather than the recycler, as in this video from Keep America Beautiful. It was created following research that showed that only 10 percent of Americans have a recycling bin in their bathroom:
Personifying the Bin
If creating empathy for trash doesn’t help, how about empathy for the recycling and compost bins? Here’s one example from the UK, aimed at making folks more mindful of those useful outdoor bins:
At Gigantic, we thought that creating an organics cart mascot would raise awareness, and use of the green cart when we created this video for the City of Livermore:
We’ll be looking at the use of memorable messaging to increase recycling and composting participation during our session “Not Just the Facts, Ma’am: Getting the Message to Matter” at the CRRA conference this August. We hope to see you there!
Every so often we run into people doing important environmental work who deserve some recognition. This inspired us to launch a Gigantic blog series highlighting local citizens making a difference. Here, Gigantic’s Stefanie Pruegel speaks with Jamie Facciola, a Bay Area native with background in corporate sustainability consulting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions.
On May 17, Uptown Body & Fender in Oakland hosted the Repair Fair, an event single-handedly organized by volunteer Jamie Facciola, Community Engagement Planner with the Sustainable Business Alliance. For three hours, about a dozen Oakland businesses took turns demonstrating repairs on everything from shoes, amps and furniture to jewelry and vacuum cleaners. Meanwhile, on the far end of the spacious venue, a handful of volunteer “fixers” guided visitors in the disassembly and—in many cases—successful repair of broken stuff they had brought, including toasters, radios, hair dryers and even a doll.
Jamie had spent months pulling it all together. Her motivation? “After years of helping nudge big companies towards more ‘sustainable’ choices, I wanted to get involved in something tangible, something that has impact in my neighborhood.” Repair appeals to her because “it is an industry where growth doesn’t also mean growing resource depletion and waste, but actually means doing more good for the environment.”
The point of the event was to promote local repair businesses, an industry that seems to be in danger of going extinct. Not that stuff breaks less—quite the opposite—but even items covered under warranty are no longer repaired because “it is the least incentivized option; typically a company will just send you a new one.”
The decline of repair seems ironic in a culture where the Maker Movement is thriving and DIY is hip, at least in the Bay Area. But there’s a difference. The appeal of the hugely popular Maker Faire, for example, is all about empowerment and creative self-expression in a world of cookie-cutter products. Repurposing definitely has its place there, but good old repair? Jamie speculates that maybe it’s just not sexy enough.
One of her biggest worries is that pretty soon repair services will only be available at Fixit Clinics where no money changes hands. “Don’t get me wrong—these pop-up events where volunteers gather to fix things for free are hugely popular and address a real need,” she asserts. “But I do wonder about the impact on the local economy.” At the event, she made a point of checking first if a visitor’s broken item could be handled by one of the repair businesses on hand before sending the owner over to the “fixer” corner.
The event feedback from shops and attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Did they score new customers? Definitely, but more importantly, they met each other and networked, even referring visitors where their services weren’t quite the right match “Maybe they need to come together as a group, and market themselves as an industry,” muses Jamie. She is starting work on a business plan for a “Repair Salon”—a physical space shared by businesses offering one-stop shopping for repairs. “Oakland could be the perfect place for that.”
A stunning art installation featuring the plight of political prisoners around the world got me thinking about, yes, recycling campaigns. In addition to being a moving experience, the @Large exhibit by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei , on now at Alcatraz Island, nicely illustrates the stages we consider when designing a campaign for environmental behavior change. The exhibit takes the viewer along a path, with different appeals and presentations at each step.
People need to come to behavior change through a process, most clearly described by Everett Rogers back in the 1960s in his book, Diffusion of Innovations. His Innovation Adoption Stages model looks like this:
Intentionally or not, the Ai Wei Wei installation follows the stages, leading the visitor from awareness of the issues, through “persuasion” via a multi-sensory deepening of the experience, and finally, offers a concrete action that the viewer can take.
The @Large installation begins at the New Industries Building. It takes several forms, but the initial contact focuses on making the viewer aware of the variety and extent of political imprisonment around the world. The floor of an enormous room is covered with portraits of political prisoners, made from LEGO bricks. At this point, the artist has not assumed that the viewer is ready to do something, but rather provides beautifully crafted “information” in the form of portraits of human faces arrayed across a huge space to raise awareness of the scope of the issue. Books detailing the stories of each of the prisoners are present, but the viewer is not in any way forced to learn more facts and figures. The act of walking the length of the huge room with the 176 portraits “sets the problem” in the mind and heart of the visitor.
The @Large exhibit continues to the cell block building, where the viewer starts to live into the experience of prisoners – visitors are invited to enter each of 12 small, unadorned and definitely not prettified cells. There is nothing to look at, but each cell has a different recording playing, usually of the music or speech of one of the prisoners. By involving the sense of hearing and the physical experience of walking into the tiny, dingy cells, the viewer becomes more fully involved and engaged.
After several more stops, at the end of the exhibition visitors are given the opportunity to write postcards addressed to individual prisoners whose portraits they saw earlier. The sponsoring Foundation notes: “The postcards are adorned with images of birds and plants from the nations where the prisoners are held. Cards are gathered and mailed by @Large Art Guides.”
The viewer has been led through awareness of the issue to persuasion about the problem’s scope and importance, though information and appeals to the emotions. Only at the end is the viewer invited to make a decision to act, by writing a personal communication to one of the prisoners introduced during the first stop of the exhibition. The viewer is not urged to act before s/he has had a chance to fully digest and explore the need to communicate. And by communicating, not to a general, amorphous authority, but to a single individual, the final action becomes that much more memorable.
Not all of our behavior change campaigns can be as beautiful and meaningful as Ai Wei Wei’s @Large, but there is much to admire in the intentional layout of the exhibit that aims to touch, inspire and ultimately, change the viewer. The exhibit ends this month…go see it if you can!