We love working on all kinds of waste and sustainability issues with our clients, and we especially enjoy the challenge of moving people toward a more zero waste lifestyle. Our most recent presentation for the CRRA Conference (see slideshow below) looked at the challenge of “selling folks” on the behavior of buying less stuff. “Selling Nothing” introduced some ways of encouraging less consumption, such as by focusing on specific items, or reminding people of the positive feeling that comes from sharing or helping others, or by focusing on specific behaviors, for instance holiday gift-giving, to encourage buying less stuff.
We then presented results of a brief survey of Californians about their feelings around any recent changes in their consumption habits. Many of the questions were borrowed – well, reused — from a 2015 survey done in New Zealand about the connection between buying and people’s feeling of well-being.
A few findings from our July 2021 survey, which gathered 350 responses from Californians:
A majority of respondents (53%) confirm they are consciously reducing the amount of stuff they have bought in the last 3 months.
Unsurprisingly in this time of economic uncertainty and pandemic effects, over half of those who bought less did so because they had less money to spend or wanted to save more. These answers could give us some ideas about how to position non-consumption.
More than two-thirds of respondents agreed with statements about over-consumption’s negative impact on “future generations” and “the planet.” So seemingly awareness is not the issue in cutting consumption, it’s more a question of persuasion.
The final question of the survey was “Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?” — asked at the end so as not to prejudice responses to the other questions. 43% said yes, 34% said no, and 18% weren’t sure if they considered themselves environmentalists. The comments revealed some tensions: some considered being “green” too hard or that environmentalists are too radical, while a few were outright hostile to the label.
Key takeaways include:
“Selling” not buying in general is a tough challenge; try focusing on specific actions, items or situations in order to chip away at the social pressure to consume.
While we encourage source reduction to tackle the issues of waste and climate change, there are many reasons people may reduce consumption that could be included in a source reduction campaign. A primary driver is saving money.
A majority of respondents understand that rampant consumption is harmful to people and planet in the long run. BUT…
A majority also acknowledge that buying stuff makes them happy. So that clarifies the challenge for outreach campaigns that aim to reduce consumption – how can we offer a form of happiness to replace the happiness of buying?
One of the challenges of zero waste outreach is how to convince people to NOT do something: buy new stuff. Every day Americans are bombarded by thousands of slick, seductive ads encouraging the purchase of shiny new things that they may or may not need. Helping the public to understand that “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is a list in priority of importance is tricky. How can reducing consumption be positioned as a positive?
While residents contemplate a New Year clean-out, our recent “Re-Solve to Re-Home” campaign for Zero Waste Marin introduced three alternative solutions to throwing away: “Swap. Donate. Share.” This messaging allowed us to position a positive, feel-good message to finding new homes for old items. We were able to take advantage of the recent uptick in “Buy Nothing” groups and other social media outlets for neighbor-to-neighbor ways to swap stuff.
We also experimented with the message that we all learned back in kindergarten: the feel-good advantage of sharing. We incorporated this into the Marin campaign with a pitch for cooperative ownership and neighborhood tool lending libraries.
Encouraging source reduction in a consumer society is an uphill battle but reframing “not buying” as doing something more social and fun or helpful is an important part of the effort!
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!