The French connection: What France's Yellow Vest protests can teach the United States about sustainability

Speaking Sustainably

The French connection: What France's Yellow Vest protests can teach the United States about sustainability

Yellow Vest protests in Paris, France
Shutterstock Alexandros Michailidis
In Paris, French citizens take part Dec. 1 in a protest march of the yellow vests against rising fuel and oil prices.

I married into a French family, which means I spend my Christmas holidays every year in a little village outside of Rennes in Brittany on the west coast of France. We arrived this year in the middle of the Yellow Vest movement, intensive protests over a proposed gasoline tax — a tax meant to incentivize people to drive less to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change.

As you’ve probably read and can read in the link above, this was a tone-deaf policy proposal. For all its public transportation, many villages and outskirt areas of the country do not have access to public transportation. Not driving to get to work or to get groceries simply isn’t an option. And many French people are stretched pretty thin already — wage growth is stagnant, taxes are high and costs keep going up. This tax was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and unearthed many feelings of being stuck and screwed and opened the floodgates to a proverbial "I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" stand.

I asked family members throughout my trip, "How’s life in France?" and I repeatedly heard, "Not great. People are angry." And (maybe an indicator, maybe not) I noticed a lot more graffiti in public places throughout Rennes. There’s always been a little on the sides of train cars, under bridges and on dumpsters. But it’s on the sides of buildings as well. And there’s a lot of it. So, it struck me that some people aren’t just angry. They’re destructive. And we’ve certainly seen that in the Yellow Vest protests — nobody in my French family could think of another time when the Arc de Triomphe had been defaced in protest of a government policy.

This all got me thinking about what’s happening in America. I have read a fair amount about the rise of populism, and I’ve sought to understand how we arrived at a Trump presidency. The insight that has made the most sense to me is that many working-class Americans — the Trump base — feel much like the Yellow Vesters in France. They feel like they’ve gotten screwed out of the American dream. They were told they could grow up and be anything they wanted, even president (cue John Cougar Mellencamp’s "Pink Houses"), and instead, their jobs got shipped overseas or replaced with technology. They feel like they’ve been waiting in line for their turn, their shot, and instead immigrants are coming in and cutting in line to get their jobs.

So, what does this all have to do with sustainability? Two things:

1. We know that climate change disproportionately affects folks on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. This plays out a lot of ways, but the simplest one to wrap your head around (which isn’t really simple) is that weather disruptions affect crop yields. Fewer crops means higher prices. If you’re already struggling to make ends meet, you can’t afford more expensive food.

So, the Yellow Vests and the Trump base who already feel stretched thin, who already feel screwed, will get even more stretched and screwed as we enter the full swing of climate change.

2. Fighting climate change long has been seen as something that’s in the wheelhouse of the liberal elite. Although folks we call "Working Class Realists" in our consumer segmentation want greener products and more efficient houses for health and safety reasons, they haven’t connected the dots to how government policies and corporate action on sustainability will directly affect their lives.

2019 is the year to change that.

My observation at sustainability and energy efficiency conferences in the last half of 2018 is that there’s an urgency coming from corporate America that I haven’t seen before. I’ve been working on sustainability for nearly 15 years and the shift is palpable. I’m relieved to see it. But, Corporate America, it’s not enough to curb your carbon emissions. You have to connect the dots from what you’re doing to why it matters to people’s daily lives. That’s how you build brand value and sell more products. But it’s also how we get everyone — especially those who have the most to lose in a 2 degree Celsus world — in agreement that these actions are critical.

As we enter what will feel like the Longest Presidential Season Ever, I caution politicians on this as well. Right now, climate is buried amidst the noise on immigration and terrorism. Yet, climate change will affect every single one of us, and it will affect the folks worried about immigration in ways that are so much deeper, more painful and permanent than immigration. Your talking points need to tell that story. We must take sustainability out of the realm of the Liberal Elite and make it a concern and a platform for the Everyman. And we can’t run around slapping gas taxes on people as a way to curb climate change. We must be more nuanced, offer carrots to go along with the sticks. We must reimagine programs and rebates so a family of four living on $35,000-40,000 a year can see how fighting climate change helps them today as well as tomorrow.

In 2019, connect these dots:

Corporations: Do the right thing and tell emotionally compelling stories about why you’re doing it. Lay out your vision for the world. Talk about the Big Problems you’re working to overcome and the future you’re aiming to create for everyone. Engage your buyers in your vision and help them see the direct connection between buying your products and creating a better today and tomorrow.

Politicians and policymakers: reimagine programs so the folks who are hurting the most right now get the most help. Fix their houses so they’re healthy and efficient; make it possible/affordable for them to buy fuel-efficient cars and access renewable energy. Empower them to take action and gain control over the forces that could keep them in poverty and communicate that narrative. Help them see how climate change is extremely relevant to their lives and is a bigger challenge for them than all of the other stuff we’re talking about — and help them overcome it.

And, for good measure, re-read my "wish list for 2018" post from this time last year. It’s still relevant and directly related to what I’m saying here. And if you need help connecting the dots and creating a relevant narrative (it’s not as easy as it sounds), call me and we’ll figure it out. The time to shift and communicate is now.