The art of sustainability mythmaking


The art of sustainability mythmaking

When Mike Bellamente, director of Climate Counts, posted his review of last month's GreenBiz Forum in New York City on Huffington Post, it didn’t bode well at first. “We've succeeded in building an entire industry of sustainability professionals, individually doing yeoman's work to further the cause, but collectively falling short in how we validate our work beyond our bubble.” To influence the wider world, Bellamente said, “We need to blow up our tidy little world of ‘green bizzers’ and explore more effective ways of becoming inclusive of the everyday Joe. Joe Marketer, Joe Consumer, Joe Investor, Joe the Plumber ... all the Joes and all their female, interracial, socially conservative, LGBT counterparts.”

I couldn’t agree more. Down here in Texas, when I tell people outside the industry that I run a sustainability communications firm, even reasonably smart professionals (read: 95 percent of businesspeople) give me a deer-in-the-headlights look. Nodding and pretending to understand, they say something like, “That sounds really interesting” before redirecting the conversation to subjects that actually do interest them.

Here’s the rub. It’s hard to talk about our most pressing environmental issues without using the term “sustainability.” Many think that we need a new word, but I disagree. Rather, we need to do a better job of using the word we have — imbuing sustainability with shared meaning and context. We also need to exercise judgment concerning when and how to use it.

As professionals, one way we can better reach Joe is to define more concretely our role within sustainability. Case in point: In 2005 when I launched EarthPeople, it was a sustainability consulting firm, a broad descriptor meant to function as a catchall until I could solidify the ideal positioning. Today, EarthPeople is a sustainability communications firm, emphasizing our core competencies in stakeholder engagement, cause marketing, media strategy, CSR and public relations. Sustainability is our area of subject-matter expertise, but our function in the movement relates to communication, a familiar term easily understood by people outside the field and appreciated by sustainability insiders as well. Clarifying this has helped us attract quality clients that can genuinely benefit from our services, most recently a department of the World Bank.

In a rapidly evolving field that is becoming more and more sophisticated, specialization is inevitable and perhaps even essential. However, the downside of specialization is that it leads to a proliferation of jargon, and regular Joe doesn’t like jargon. To reach him and every other decision-maker, we need to do as Bellamente suggests and become sustainability mythmakers.

A sustainability mythmaker is one who takes the truth about what is happening in the world, and communicates in a way that engages (rather than enrages) people who may not yet understand. To bring them along, a sustainability mythmaker invokes a sense of legend, personal attachment and shared purpose that counterbalances unfamiliar and scary subject matter. A sustainability mythmaker is a vision caster who communicates not only to inform, but to also inspire others to work in defense of that which they hold dear.

I tried my hand at sustainability mythmaking last week at our Capitol in Austin while advocating for a bill to prohibit the shark fin trade in Texas. Testifying before the state House and Senate committees, which included some extremely conservative legislators, I was challenged with how to speak about an issue I care deeply about, which is draining the ocean of 100 million sharks each year. How was I going to communicate about this without using words like “unsustainable,” “inhumane” and “global”?

When I took my place at the microphone, I decided to tell a story instead. I talked as a regular citizen reminiscing about family trips to the Texas coast. I talked about my husband growing up fishing on the bayou near Houston. I talked about how impressed we were with the revitalization of Galveston Island (during which we literally had to evacuate our vacation rental house in 2008 when Hurricane Ike struck), and how we needed a vibrant ocean to complement this coastal community we all share. Speaking about shark conservation in terms of protecting the Gulf economy, I cited the importance of maintaining a balanced ecology for fisherman and the diving community, for which the Gulf is a popular destination given its proximity to Flower Garden Banks, one of 14 National Marine sanctuaries.

My testimony was all true — just as true as if I had told a different facet of the story, one replete with statistics and facts and gory details about shark finning. Knowing my audience, I instead cast a vision of us all working together to preserve our coastal waters. Framing it in these terms has helped us garner tremendous bipartisan support and buzz for an issue that could easily have been regarded as too narrow or ever controversial.

Anyone can talk facts. What sets mythmakers apart is their ability to transcend social barriers such as class and education level in order to inspire the masses. Mythmakers also use tools with the capacity to reach regular Joes. For example, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, he was not the only cleric of his day to oppose the sale of indulgences. According to custom, Luther first composed the Theses in Latin. However, the following year, they were translated into German (the common man’s language), spread like wildfire, and Luther became legendary. Today’s language of the masses is the Web, the blogosphere and social media. Sustainability mythmakers should become adept at using these tools. (Watch this space for more on setting up your social media platform to maximize your sustainability message.)

When it comes to mythmaking, the messenger matters at least as much as the message. Inspiring people to change involves doing deeds that match your words. I still run across Joes who are furious at Al Gore for “trying to scare us with all this sustainability stuff while he’s making millions of dollars and living in a giant house.” They literally cannot see past it. (I like to remind them that success and sustainability are not mutually exclusive, and that they don’t seem too bothered when oil executives display their wealth, but somehow this logic does not compute with them.)

The point is, when talking to Joe about sustainability, it helps to become your own best example. In the words of St. Francis, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Sustainability mythmakers aren’t lone rangers. They engage others in a shared voice. I recently attended a conference on workplace sustainability where some very impressive, data-rich research studies were presented. However, the best presentation by far was from Interface. It involved no slides  just videos and stories. The videos were not limited only to the charismatic founder Ray Anderson, but included others, too. From Interface executives to folks on the factory floor and in the filing offices, workers shared their own sustainability stories from the trenches. Their collective voice for sustainability has reached mythic proportions. Eighteen months after Anderson’s death, former colleagues such as Jim Hartzfeld are still writing about the impact that Anderson’s sustainability mythmaking had on their lives.

I gave some tips on how to tell your sustainability story in this column last fall. It’s a good starter kit for sustainability communicators. Becoming a sustainability mythmaker involves the same ideas, just a lot more action, dedication, sincerity, belief and courage.

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