Making sustainable living better than teen sex

“Sustainable living is like teenage sex”, few are doing it, and fewer are doing it “properly” said Joanna Yarrow, Founding Director of Beyond Green, at the Ashden Awards.

Those who are doing it well are having their efforts recognised at the coveted Ashden Awards, which highlights “practical, local energy solutions that cut carbon, protect the environment, reduce poverty and improve people’s lives”.

Just how did the finalists bring about cultural changes within their organisation or a local community, and move people to making sustainable choices? Here are some key themes I heard at the Awards.

Focus on people, not technology

The National Trust, which has just been announced as the UK Gold Ashden Award winner, has cut energy use in its Wales region by an impressive 41% over just two years through a combination of efficiency measures to cut down on energy use, and by installing renewable sources of energy, including solar PV panels and hydro power.

Key to its success has been remembering that technology is just the “icing on the cake” and that to manage those changes, people are critical said Keith Jones from the National Trust. “The technology is the stuff we only do at the end,” he said.  Sustainability wasn’t sidelined into extra “green” jobs, it was “hard wired” into everyone’s jobs. For example, the Trust introduced a 30 second rule – energy-saving work that had to be done by Trust staff had to be carried out within that time on a daily basis.

A heat map of one of the Trust’s houses showed why focusing on the staff and not the technology is critical. The map shows little heat seeping out from the newly double glazed windows, but someone has left the door open, represented as an angry red rectangle on the image. Read his blog documenting the process the Trust has carried out.

Much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, emotions colour everything we do, and every decision we take. This is likely why Yarrow spoke about creating opportunities so people can develop a personal experience and emotional connection with nature. For this reason, her parents originally set up Wilderness Wood, a 62-acre woodland in Sussex. Now managed by Yarrow and her husband, it allows thousands of visitors to enjoy the wood throughout the seasons.

People are different

If people are critical to creating a cultural shift, then we also need to recognise that all these people aren’t all the same. Yarrow, who was behind Ariel’s “Turn To 30” campaign cited audience research by Chris Rose, who breaks people down into 3 groups: settlers, prospectors and pioneers, which I have previously blogged about.

Settlers are driven by a need for safety and security and avoid risk, while prospectors are directed by a need for success, and gain esteem through how others estimate them, while pioneers are willing to take risks and don’t care much about what the Jones’ next door think of them. The way to talk about sustainability to each group should be different – know your audience and fine tune your message.

Timing’s crucial, and help people have fun

When students move to university, they’re moving away from home and are most susceptible to being influenced to adopt the eco-friendly habit of switching off their lights when they leave the room. The Student Switch off campaign approach is based on the “habit discontinuity hypothesis” published by Bas Verplanken and others in 2008, which suggests that it is easier to get people to adopt more environmentally-friendly behaviours if they are going through a lifestyle change.

The campaign’s approach isn’t heavy handed – it starts with a simple, small action any student can take. They run fun peer-to-peer events which include lots of ice cream and obstacle courses. The campaign uses Facebook – the social media platform used by most students – to share messages. Each university taking part gets their own Facebook page, and they run photo contests with the students. Some really get into the spirit, dressing up as eco superheros with requisite capes and tights and have, well, some fun. It’s paid off. The 43 universities taking part in the campaign have experienced a 7% drop in electricity consumption.

Secure the backing of key leaders

The UK’s promise to run a green games helped it win the bid according to Holly Knight, Head of sustainability for the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA). And key to delivering on that promise was leadership. Early on, the ODA developed a document and got signatures from key leaders at that time, such as Tessa Jowell and Ken Livingstone, which they could then take into meetings with key partners and stakeholders. Getting backing from people at top level gave them “ammunition in those fights,” said Knight.

Despite these projects all being based in the UK, the lessons are universal.

This blog was cross-posted on the IIED blog (with a different title).