I just completed my second Plastic-Free July! This is a worldwide event that draws attention to the enormous, and enormously damaging, place that single-use plastic holds in our daily life.
While a single person’s actions may not seem to make much impact on the 8,000,000 tons of plastic that enter the ocean each year, we’ve got to start somewhere! And, it is possible to draw some lessons from the month-long discipline to help us think about behavior change.
Don’t Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good
As with any behavior change, it’s important not to punish yourself – or your target audience – if /when you fall off the wagon. I searched and searched for a non-plastic toothpaste tube, to no avail. I finally found a glass jar of toothpaste in a homeopathic shop. Yes, it had a plastic lid, but I decided the compromise was acceptable. And I got used to the taste!
In our campaigns, we avoid showing super heroes – because the behavior change we are after doesn’t require super powers to do the right thing. “Regular” people can make a big difference. We steer clear of messages like “Can you get all your waste for the year into a peanut butter jar? No? What’s wrong with you?” Instead, we try to make the desired behavior attractive and achievable.
Boundaries Bring Freedom
Supermarket shopping gets a whole lot faster when single-use plastics are off limits. Entire aisles of cookies, chips and crackers are forbidden to the plastic avoider. How relaxing! I can avoid temptation and adhere to good plastic-free consumption and nutrition habits at the same time.
Freedom is an important value in the American psyche, and is one that environmental campaigns may be able to take more advantage of. Taking a restriction (reducing use of plastic or pesticide or water, for example) and reframing it as freedom can be an effective behavior change message.
Think Before You…Do, Buy, Cook, Toss!
One of the most important benefits of going plastic-free is a growing awareness of how often we cruise through life on auto-pilot. Going plastic-free means remembering every time to say, “No straw, please,” “Please use my reusable cup,” or “Can I get that wrapped in paper, not plastic?”
In behavior change campaigns, we look for ways to ingrain a new behavior, to create a body memory out of increased mindfulness. Several of our campaigns here at Gigantic now emphasize the the intelligence of our community members. “You’re smart about other things in your life, why not be smart about recycling?”
While I have not been able to stay completely plastic free, the search for alternatives to plastic is starting to become a comfortable behavior, and is making me more aware of things I take for granted. Carrying my work into my life, and vice versa, is very rewarding.
A very enjoyable aspect of our work here at Gigantic is that we often team up with artists who bring their creativity and skills to bear for environmental behavior change.
One such collaborator is Darrell Hunger, an industrial designer with a passion for applying his creativity to solve environmental problems. A hard-to-find hybrid of nuts-n-bolts pragmatism and artistic vision, Darrell has been instrumental to many of the interactive displays and games we’ve designed for our clients over the past years. For the City of Oakland’s “test your cart smarts” event booth, Darrell turned curbside carts into a life-size sort game, complete with fake moldy peaches and carefully sauce-smeared take-out containers as “game pieces.”
Most recently, Darrell helped us build a game for StopWaste to help people learn the best way to store fruits and veggies, so they stay fresher longer and there’s less food waste. Looking a bit like a doll’s kitchen, the game lets players open cabinets and a fridge and peek under empty bowls sitting on the counter to find images of the foods they’re tasked to “store.” From tiny hinges to mini door handles and a sturdy collapsible stand for the game, Darrell helped us think through the design and put it all together.
With such a unique skill set, it’s not a surprise Darrell is a regular at Burning Man, specifically a member of the Earth Guardians, Burning Man’s environmental crew. They are the ones in charge of enforcing the organization’s “Leave No Trace” (LNT) policy—essentially returning Black Rock Desert to its natural state each year, as if the weeklong, crazy circus of 70,000 revelers never happened. And it’s serious business, not an esoteric goal: LNT is a requirement written into the Special Event Permit and contract Burning Man has with Nevada’s Bureau of Land Management.
For the Earth Guardians, this means recruiting, training and overseeing an army of volunteers who check on camps to make sure no gray water or automotive fluids are leaking on the desert floor, keeping people out of the hot springs, and collecting MOOP—or “Matter Out Of Place” as defined by Burning Man. This truly means anything that wasn’t originally part of Black Rock Desert, no matter how small, including beads and feathers broken loose from costumes, tiny litter pieces, wood chips and even the ash from cigarettes. To make the tedious un-MOOPing at least a bit more pleasant, volunteers get “MOOP bags” to collect the debris, sewn out of old jeans and ties months before the event by Darrell and his crew. But the Earth Guardians may already face another challenge: “Micro MOOP” such as body glitter and other particles that even the most diligent unMOOPing can’t retrieve.
Lucky for Burners (and the rest of the world) Darrell is a master of reuse and waste prevention, and shares his skills and knowledge widely. At this year’s Burning Man, his repair workshop “Glue, screw, patch: How to fix things that break, are worn or want to be repurposed” was a huge hit. In his typical hands-on style, Darrell showed participants the best uses of glues, screws, splints and other repair tools, and fixed broken objects brought to the class. Way to go Darrell!
As we work on environmental behavior change campaigns, we spend a lot of time crafting the perfect look and wording – to get the message right. Choosing the right messenger for that message is essential for its success. The Gigantic team’s presentation at the 2017 California Resource Recovery Association Conference covered several aspects of thinking about the best messenger.
Sometimes a public agency’s message can be strengthened and find traction when delivered in a different voice. The messenger’s “personality” can take several forms and can be delivered live, in print and digitally:
Mascots have the power to attract and engage people and make them care about issues such as recycling, waste or water quality. Creating and implementing a mascot messenger takes planning, patience and creativity. We presented examples of recent environmental mascots and talked about the process for creating, naming, scripting and distributing a mascot.
A message is easier to accept if the viewer identifies with the person delivering the message. Our presentation touched on how to evoke thoughts like “Well, if she can do it, so can I” or “I want to be more like that person” in an environmental campaign, by recruiting community members to deliver the message.
It’s easy to treat social media like another advertising channel for promoting your organization’s events and campaigns. But social media can be so much more than a digital bulletin board. We looked at ways to establish a personality on social media that doesn’t just tell folks what to do, but that interacts, observes, and participates in the broader online community. One excellent example is Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel, who demonstrates best practices for tone and engagement.
Here is the CRRA presentation covering the above topics. Please let us know if you have questions or would like to talk about how the right messenger can work for you.
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.