Making Sustainability Mainstream

One of the most remarkable sustainability campaigns that I often refer to, is the Greenpeace response to the Dove campaign “Onslaught”, “Dove Onslaughter”. Here are the videos:

In a very creative and persuasive way, Greenpeace criticized Dove (and Unilever) for its consumption and production of palm oil that had a direct deforestation impact on Indonesia’s tropical rainforests.

Despite different variables to consider (such as the fact that Paul Polman became CEO of Unilever in 2009), this Greenpeace campaign that was launched in 2008, must somehow correlate with Unilever’s involvement in helping reduce deforestation from palm oil (Check out Greenpeace’s timeline of victories and losses). In fact, Unilever has become one of the leading companies in the promotion of sustainable palm oil, through its Sustainable Living Plan, which was launched in 2010, and the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil initiative.

Thereafter, Unilever began its journey to become the most sustainable brand in the world according to the 2016 Sustainability Leaders Globescan Report.

While I don’t think many NGO campaigns are significantly effective at driving change, this particular campaign definitely had some effect on Unilever’s actions.

Still, I question whether sustainability campaigns focusing on the “negatives and bads” to drive change are the best way to go, especially for generating societal awareness. Sometimes they are necessary to expose critical issues, for example, where there is high probability of severe risk such as with localized pollution directly affecting people’s health. However, with issues that are more indirect, and have a longer-term impact, alarming campaigns might be counterproductive, as people who can’t deal with problems beyond their control (climate change for example), tend to resort to an “ostrich approach” of non-action.

Such “negative-alarming” campaigns must be related to traditional change models, where one of the main strategies is to create a sense of urgency.

Considering global challenges such as climate change, its been at least 20 years, around the time the Kyoto Protocol was signed, since scientists and the United Nations have stressed the sense of urgency as a result of the planet’s rising temperatures. In all honesty, for different reasons, their awareness generation campaigns have been rather unsuccessful.

While the narrative has changed, as sustainability communications have evolved to some extent, from alarming scenarios to more positive narratives of opportunities of the new low carbon economy, still, there is a long way to go. I believe that more alternative communication strategies are needed, to better communicate the climate change challenge and to make sustainability “mainstream”.

After exploring different communication strategies, going beyond campaigns, one such alternative approach combines Simon Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with why’ strategy and Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘tipping point theory’.

In his book “Start with Why”, Sinek emphasises the need to start with a clear purpose to inspire and connect with people’s “gut feeling”, to make an emotional connection, not a rational one. He explains examples of successful leaders driving change such as Steve Jobs’ Apple revolution and Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Sinek emphasizes the importance of involving particular types of people, specifically ‘innovators’ and ‘early adopters’ to start a movement and to build trust and loyalty to expand the message through others, “to reach enough people to tip the scale” (2009, p.146). This relates to the “law of diffusion of innovation”.

The law of diffusion of innovation (Meade & Islam, 2006) innovationoffers a visual and practical explanation of how change happens, as ‘innovators’, who represent 2.5% of the curve, get ‘early adopters’ (the next 13.5%) involved, and together they cross the “16% chasm” to drive change by attracting the following ‘early majority’.

This intertwines with Gladwell’s Tipping Point Theory. “The theory of tipping points, (…) hinges on the insight that (…) once the beliefs and energies of a critical mass of people are engaged, conversion to a new idea will spread like an epidemic, bringing about fundamental change very quickly. The theory suggests that such a movement can be unleashed only by agents who make unforgettable and unarguable calls for change, who concentrate their resources on what really matters, who mobilize the commitment of the organization’s key players, and who succeed in silencing the most vocal naysayers” (Kim and Mauborgne, 2004).

With these strategies in mind, I am positive that there is an opportunity for sustainability to become mainstream. This is what we are trying to do with Líderes+1. Will keep you posted on how it goes!

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