We face a lot of challenges in our work at Gigantic, as we encourage, cajole and persuade folks to recycle, reduce waste, use less water or reject chemical products. The problems of pollution, waste and climate change are so immense that the actions of one individual seem unimportant, even useless. Recently we are seeing this message amplified even by those on the “right side” – environmental activists.
A recent article getting a lot of attention was headlined: “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle.” The article itself was a balanced call to action, outlining that while individual actions matter, change must also be initiated at the government, policy and corporate levels in order to avoid catastrophe. But the headline really bothered me. I worried for the huge percent of readers who might see the headline (it spread through social media) and absorb its message without reading the article. The last thing we need at this point is for individuals to give up, thinking they can’t make a difference. The intertwined threats of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss need technological fixes and legal intervention, but they also need the understanding, support and commitment of every individual, be they an inventor, a lawyer, a CEO, a mother and/or an artist.
Social change can only come with individual change. Major positive change throughout history — abolition, civil rights, workers’ rights — came through a combination of channels, including popular entertainment, lobbying, advertising, media, organizing, protesting, boycotts and, all of the one-on-one conversations and commitments initiated by people who care.
Technological fixes, viral memes, policy change – there is a panoply of responses to immense environmental challenges. There is no single solution; every step must be a “yes, and” – we need this AND that. In our work with public agencies, we always encourage a multi-touch, multi-directional approach – top-down and bottom-up – for the most effective campaigns.
I’m an environmental activist. I want systemic change at every level. I want government and business to step up and take steps that are not going to be easy or pain free. I want everyone to consider the consequences of their actions. AND…I care if you recycle.
Used motor oil, like other household hazardous waste (HHW), can have a lasting negative impact on the environment. Used motor oil from just one oil change can contaminate a million gallons of fresh water – a year’s supply for 50 people. It’s insoluble, persistent, and contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Luckily, used oil can be recycled over and over again and saves energy and other resources every time. Used oil filters can also be recycled for the oil that remains inside as well as the steel.
But why target motorcyclists? It turns out they are more likely to change their own oil than the average car owner and will often change the oil on their other vehicles as well. Riders Recycle’s goal is to increase awareness and improve used motor oil and filter recycling among Do-It-Yourself (DIY) motorcyclists. You will find our in-person outreach team at many events throughout the year (especially in the spring and summer). We also get the message out through our Riders Recycle website, social media channels and geo-targeted digital ads. Along the way we’ve learned some important lessons.
The Messenger is Key
Credibility is an important factor in any community, but it’s critical with motorcylists. From cruisers with Harleys to dual-sport adventure riders to dirt bikers and more, motorcylists are quick to notice if you’re not one of them. With several long-time motorcyclists on the Riders Recycle team, they know the right language and tone to use with each of the diverse motorcycle groups. As our team develops better relationships with event promoters, motorcycle retail businesses, race organizers, and off-road-vehicle organizations, we’re able to connect with new motorcycle communities. No matter the audience, it’s important to choose messengers who look like, sound like and ideally come from the communities that you’re trying to reach.
Because our team “speaks the language” of motorcyclists, they’re able to build trust and encounter more receptive attitudes towards the oil and filter recycling message. Even with the aversion to “environmentalist” and “government” messages in some of the motorcycle communities, when our outreach staff take the time to listen to concerns and emphasize common values, most DIYers open up to change, no matter their initial stance. With off-roaders, the message works best when recycling is positioned as a responsibility to the land, community and access for future generations. Efficiency-motivated riders are excited to learn about the technicalities of the oil re-refining and filter recycling processes. It’s wort it to take the time to understand your audience and test language to make sure it resonates with them.
In-person Outreach Works Well for Complex Behaviors
More complex behaviors like oil and filter recycling can benefit from in-person outreach that allows for longer conversations. While social media and digital ads help to reinforce the message, they aren’t always enough for behaviors with several barriers like recycling used oil and filters, reducing food waste or stopping illegal dumping. With in-person outreach, you can communicate why, how and where to do the behavior, give out tools to make it easy, and encourage community ambassadors.
While there are many more lessons we’ve learned in working with this diverse audience and in the HHW world, we’ll leave those for the next blog, including a filter-specific campaign we’re planning based on our research in San Mateo County in 2018. Until then…
Gigantic Idea Studio is proud to introduce our newest Associate, Peter Mach. Originally from Pennsylvania, Peter lived in the Bay Area for four years. Prior to joining the Gigantic team, Peter worked for Code REDD, an environmental nonprofit based in Mill Valley, focused on preserving forests, protect wildlife, empowering people and reducing emissions. As Assistant Director, Peter led the organization’s flagship program, Stand For Trees, an innovative grassroots campaign that empowers individuals to take action against forest loss, the number one cause of species extinction and a contributor to climate change.
Before moving to the Bay Area, Peter lived in Washington, DC, and worked at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) on forestry policy and legality issues. EIA is a pioneer in undercover investigations to expose environmental crime around the world. Peter contributed to these efforts and promoted the Forest Legality Initiative, a multi-stakeholder initiative working to reduce illegal logging by increasing awareness and supporting legally sourced timber and forest products. This work took Peter to five continents in just two years.
Peter holds a dual graduate degree from Colorado State University, where he studied how industry, non-profits and government agencies can collaborate to find solutions to environmental challenges. As part of his thesis, he examined responsible fishing policies in Chiapas, Mexico. He also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic and domestically as an AmeriCorps Team Leader in Alaska.
Peter first became passionate about the natural world growing up in central Pennsylvania, where he earned his B.A. in Media Studies from Pennsylvania State University. Building on all his experiences and learnings to date, Peter is interested in—and good at—finding solutions at the nexus of conservation and livelihoods, in particular around the complexities of climate change. He looks forward to bringing his skills to the Gigantic team. Outside of his time at Gigantic, Peter can be found riding his bicycle in the Marin Headlands, on his kayak or otherwise enjoying life in the Bay Area.
I’ve got a guilty secret to share. To retreat from the past year’s stressful news cycle, I’ve been watching Christmas movies on the weekends, on a cable channel that is running them marathon-style, non-stop until Christmas. Last Sunday, while watching Return to Christmas Creek, I was heartened to see that a prominent theme was the rejection of material gift giving during the holidays. The story’s main character, a busy professional named Amelia, is told by her boss that her shopping app, designed to easily buy gifts online, is missing the true spirit of Christmas: personal connection. He rejects funding it and Amelia is devastated.
We were thinking of this very theme as we developed a video ad to promote waste-free gift giving with Santa Clara County Recycling and Waste Reduction Division. Our video also celebrates experience and connection over things. Gifts that provide experiences create memories—and while stuff ends up in the landfill, memories last a lifetime:
At the end of her journey of self-reflection, Amelia revamps her shopping app to include ways to help those in need, and because this is happening in movie-land, it is celebrated and funded and everyone gets their happy ending! (Oh, and she reunites her family and finds true love in the process of course!).
In order to help people give Zero Waste gifts of experience, we created a list of great gift ideas on SCC’s website. For a real-life version of Amelia’s app, or if you’re thinking of starting or promoting a registry, try out SoKind. The site allows anyone to collect non-material, homemade and charitable gift ideas in one place to share with friends and family.
Best wishes for a fun-filled, waste-free holiday season from the entire Gigantic team!
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?