Talking about sustainability can be really hard. The situation can feel urgent, overwhelming, and terrifying all at once. This can become even more frustrating when it seems like the people around you don’t care, or don’t want to.
I know I can struggle with this a lot myself; thinking about these topics takes up so much of my time, and it can be hard to find the best way to communicate what I know and feel cohesively. Luckily, there are ways we can learn to communicate that have been tried and tested, and are more likely to help others progress and change their mindset.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that these conversations, while sometimes awkward, are ultimately very worthwhile. A 2019 study from researchers at Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that just 1/3 of Americans talk about climate often, or even occasionally. This lack of communication has led average Americans to believe that only 54% of fellow Americans believe global warming is happening, when the number is actually 69%.
The team also found that increasing the frequency of climate discussions had the power to shift people’s perceptions to believe climate science, which in turn led to significant changes in people’s beliefs that climate breakdown is happening, that it’s caused by humanity, and that there’s cause to worry. These findings suggest that having climate conversations with friends and family, while difficult, holds the potential to create pro-climate social feedback loops that encourage belief and behaviour change.
People change their own behaviours. Our role is to create an enabling environment and provide opportunities for people to become inspired by what their peers have achieved. When we offer people a chance to take a step closer to the lives, businesses or farms they dream about (and we make that change feel safe) then they’ll do the changing for us.
So, instead of asking “How can I make the public share my passionate concerns for climate, road safety, domestic violence etc?” we need to ask “How can I be of service to the concerns they already have?”
So, now that we know that these conversations really can make a difference, how do we best go about them to create the space for positive change? Here are my suggestions.
This is something that often gets overlooked in sustainability activism but is incredibly important. It is vital that we always take an intersectional approach and understand that not everyone carries the same privileges we do. Sustainable fashion can be more expensive and less size-inclusive, some people live in food deserts where they don’t have access to fresh produce, sustainable policy can be ableist if communities aren’t consulted, and general policy that marginalises and mistreats people of colour, LGBTQ+, disabled people and low-income people doesn’t leave a lot of room or resources for sustainable options. Additionally, most of our modern-day problems are born out of colonial and racist histories, so antiracism work is vital to sustainability.
There are so many factors that come into play when it comes to people having time, resources and energy, so it’s important we’re sensitive to these things. If we have relationships with people, we can offer suggestions that may be accessible to them, but it’s important to make sure we aren’t preaching blindly to people who are in completely different circumstances or hold far less privilege than us.
Climate inherently intersects with social, political and scientific issues. We need to hear diverse voices and perspectives of marginalised communities in order to create change that actually helps everyone, and we must go into every conversation with this knowledge. It’s important that, as we learn about climate to talk to others, we make sure to seek out (and point others to) diverse sources on sustainable and climate education, and that our conversations are always informed by checking our own privilege before we do anything else.
Know what it means to you
It’s unlikely that you’ll change anyone’s mind with statistics or facts. Awareness and worry about climate is high, and growing in current times. Approximately 3/4 of UK citizens are concerned, alongside 2/3 of people in the US. On the other side of this, those who’ve fallen prey to misinformation are unlikely to be swayed by facts either.
However, appealing to things people care about through story and empathy is a lot more likely to work. While it’s not necessary to know every fact, figure, and statistic out there, it’s important to know what matters to you and why, as this is what you ground your reasoning and arguments in. Understanding ourselves, as well as our thoughts, feelings and behaviours around sustainability will help to cultivate self-awareness, meaning you’re more prepared to talk about what you care about.
Understanding your own story, and what personally matters to you, can help you to find this emotional resonance in others and establish common ground. Someone may not care about wildfires on the other side of the world, but they do care about their homes, families, friends and lifestyle. If you understand yourself and your feelings, you’ll find it easier to appeal to this side of people’s thinking too.
Ask what they know and how they feel, then redirect towards action
Some people don’t want to talk about sustainability because they don’t want to face the feelings that come with that, which is understandable. But it’s also important that, beyond behaviour change, we create space to process and confront our feelings together too.
To do this, break it down. Ask your friends first what they already know, and how this makes them feel. Try to listen with curiosity and without judgement or interruption; this is a vital tool, as it’ll help you understand their perspectives and what information has shaped their perceptions. When they tell you how they feel, ask questions. Try to understand what makes them anxious, confused or indifferent, as this will also inform how you communicate with them going forward. If asked to share your thoughts and feelings be honest, but be gentle, because this stuff is raw.
Once you have an understanding of your friend’s emotional landscape, then you can look at two sides of what’s going on. You can help them find healthy ways of coping with how they feel and dealing with their mental health, and you can look at actions to take. Ask them if they feel powerless, or if they feel there are things they could try doing. Work together to create a plan of things they could try that focuses on giving them a sense of agency and engagement.
Talk about what’s already happening
When it comes to communicating that sense of urgency, it can also be hard for people to connect with global, large scale change that they can’t see in front of them, or to think about things that haven’t actually happened yet. Again, it can make the problem seem so large and far away that it seems impossible to change and unnecessary to care about.
Instead, focus on things that people are already experiencing and can understand. Extreme weather such as heatwaves, fires, heavy rainfall and hurricanes are increasingly common and affect many of us, so talking about these occurrences is an easier way to help people understand the tangible effects of climate breakdown in our day to day lives.
If you are going to talk about the future, especially in areas that are currently less affected, make it personal and easier to understand. Increases in global temperatures don’t mean much to the average person, so focus on the specifics of the area you’re in. For example, in Europe increased heatwaves will lead to higher chances of fatality, whereas in Florida rising sea levels will cause flooding further inland every decade, leaving houses uninsurable and potentially unsaleable. People may not understand the impact of warming at 1.5°C or 2°C, but they can tangibly see how weather change may hurt their own area.
Don’t shame people
Shaming people is unlikely to create change on an individual level. While shaming can work well when it comes to holding corporations and government to account, when it comes to an everyday person this tactic can lead to resistance, denial and hostility.
It takes time and work for people to change their habits, so a shaming tactic can make others feel as if you believe you’re superior to them. Instead, a more long-term approach, helping people understand and change over time, can help them shift their behaviour and lifestyle. Being compassionate rather than judgemental, offering suggestions while leaving space for people to make their own choices, and being open to conversation and relationship rather than talking down to someone can all be useful tools for creating real change.
Changing the language we use
A few months ago, the Guardian updated its style guide, arguing that climate change no longer accurately reflected the seriousness of the situation, instead advising using “climate emergency”, “climate crisis” or “climate breakdown” instead. Soon after, the Morgenbladet in Norway followed this example.
There are debates over the scientific nuances of these terms, and some worry that using strong language will make people feel powerless and therefore apathetic, leading to no action. I understand this position, but I think it addresses two different things.
Strong language can create positive results and may be necessary. After all, the level of mobilisation and widespread change we need to implement is akin to the response to World War 2. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to make it commonplace to equate these things, so that people are ready and understand the urgent need. The issue, then, is when language doesn’t also focus on solutions.
Talking about the need for mass mobilisation without pointing people towards action, does nothing to stop the feelings of helplessness. We need people to feel optimistic, and like there is a reason to care. Yes, we should use new language to accurately communicate the situation, but it must be coupled with solutions and calls to action, too.
To learn more about a new vocabulary on climate, check out Holly Rose’s post on the topic here.
Focusing on solutions
So how do we focus on solutions? Well, instead of just emphasising the size of the crisis, we need to say ‘we have to ask fast, but we still have the time and the means to do it’. And then talk about ways people can get involved.
This can look large or small scale, depending on the situations you’re in. It can look like talking about getting the train instead of flying, emphasising how much you love your reusable water bottle and coffee cup, mentioning the climate organisations you donate to, cooking plantbased meals for friends, suggesting sustainable and local restaurants when you go out to eat, talking about how you switched to an ethical bank and renewable energy provider, or discussing how you’re engaging with local climate activism in your area.
For me, most often I speak about ecocide law, because it’s a solution that costs £5 and takes 2 minutes. Most of the people in my life can commit those two things, so it’s an accessible option for me to bring up often. It also touches lots of issues people are concerned with: the Amazon fires, plastic in the ocean, carbon emissions and more. Ecocide law will affect all sectors, so it’s a great place to direct people’s attention.
Emphasise the variety of sustainability
Sustainability looks different for each person, because there is no perfect way to do things, and we all have different contexts and circumstances. Some focus on low waste living, others focus on sustainable fashion advocacy, some help spread options for plantbased diets, some look at soil health, some talk about renewable energy. There are hundreds of ways that we can both adopt sustainable habits and focus on larger activism, and they are all valid.
This variety of options is actually a good thing, as it gives several different access points for your friends and family, making it easier to find something they’re likely to connect to and want to get involved with. This is also important to recognise when it comes to other people’s sustainability work too. Just because someone isn’t doing the same thing as you doesn’t mean they aren’t doing anything, or are doing it wrong. The variety of approaches together helps shift the needle, so it’s important not to judge others and demonstrate this to your friends and family too.
Highlight the other benefits of sustainable habits
Ideally, sustainability would be top of someone’s priority list when it comes to decision making. However, that’s not the world we live in, so highlighting how sustainable decisions can have multiple benefits will make these choices easier for people to connect with.
For example, emphasise the health benefits of eating a more plantbased, local and seasonal diet, the lower cost and uniqueness of thrifting, or the mental health benefits of minimal living (which Marie Kondo has been championing anyway). Yes, mention that these options are also good for the earth and for others, but making it beneficial from many angles makes these options seem even more appealing to people. People can still associate caring for the planet as a reluctant chore, so it’s up to us to reframe sustainable choices and take back the narrative, to make it appealing for everyone.
Let your actions speak for you
Often, simply living out your sustainable choices can lead to conversation. Sometimes people may be confused but generally, people are just interested in what you’re doing. If you aren’t embarrassed, but instead are happy to explain what you’re doing and the positive impact of it, then you’re able to have non-judgemental conversation that leaves people interested to know more, and may prompt them to follow your example.
My favourite? Every single time someone compliments an outfit and I tell them it was thrifted. It can be hard to hear people boast about how cheap their fast fashion purchases were when you know the exploitation needed to make that happen; thrifting gives you the opportunity to be just as excited about saving money, while telling people how you also acted in a more sustainable and people-friendly way too. My other trick is to buy people reusable cups and bottles as presents. Not only does it help them adopt a sustainable habit, but they enjoy receiving a gift too, and are motivated to use it because it reminds them of you. Win-win.
The other benefit to leading by example is that people can often resent unwanted advice, especially if that advice encourages us to push ourselves or leave our comfort zones. Simply trying to persuade someone into changing can make it seem intimidating, but if you are there to show how these unfamiliar behaviours can be achieved, it makes people more susceptible to change.
Suggest learning together
Many people don’t talk about sustainability because it’s such a large topic, it can be hard to know where to start. As you are the guide to your friends and family on this journey, you also want to make sure you’re not overwhelmed. So why not suggest learning together?
Some things you can try include watching an environmental documentary together, or hosting a screening for a few people. Start an environmental book club, take an online course together (if you have the funds, I’d suggest Kiss the Ground), attend talks and events, or find your local environmental group and go together. Not only do you learn, but it means the people you’re trying to talk to also get multiple chances to hear from others who are concerned too. It shows it’s not just you being overly zealous, and opens space for you to discuss all the things you’ve learned and talk about solutions together.
If you already have sustainable habits in place, you could also use these as opportunities for group learning. Perhaps your parents have never tried thrifting, so why not make a trip of it? Or maybe your friend is intimidated by bulk stores, so why not go with them and try your local one out together? Approaching things in this way makes it less isolating and scary for others, and instead fosters curiosity and discovery.
Talk about sustainability casually and regularly
If you talk about something on a regular basis, people will quickly learn that it means a lot to you (and as long as you’re not too intense, they’ll hopefully be fine with it). When people understand what you care about, they’ll both expect conversations about it to arise and will potentially come to you to discuss things more too. As opposed to feeling like you’re preaching at them, they’ll be willing to engage in conversation and to learn. Remember that you don’t have to convert anyone with one conversation, but in fact regular casual mentions are likely to get you further. It just requires a little more time and investment.
When people don’t care
Don’t blame them. Instead, act more like a designer. Immerse yourself in their lives until you figure out how to create solutions that answer their real needs…
If you want people to reduce their energy use then get to know your audience and work with them to innovate solutions that are a good fit to their real life needs.
Les Robinson, an expert in social change, argues that design based approaches are key to behaviour change. Designers utilise a system of thinking that is based on immersive research, diverse inspiration, and trying things out then redesigning them. If a design is bad, no amount of marketing can save it. In the same way, persuasion alone can’t create change if there are no clear benefits for the person you want to change.
If we can take the time to think like designers trying to innovate solutions, then we’re able to come up with suggestions and ideas that fit the people we’re talking to. It’s all about incentivising people to want to change for themselves, by finding the things that matter to them and working from there.
For example, someone may not care about who makes their clothes, but they do care about their budget. So, if we work with that person to demonstrate how shopping sustainably and building a long-lasting wardrobe will save them money, this may help them to shift their consumption habits. Or perhaps someone doesn’t care about plastic, but they do like things to be effortless. Then we can explain how menstrual cups make life easier because they’re always to hand, and last much longer.
Just like a designer, sometimes this can take a while. You may need time and relationship building to get to know people enough to use this tactic, but that’s ok. Treat conversations with curiosity; use every one as an opportunity to get to know your audience a little better, and let this increasing knowledge inform your conversations and advice. Like a designer you can reconfigure and try multiple times until you find solutions that fit. And that’s ok! Innovation takes research and investment, so treating conversations as such can be incredibly helpful.
Ultimately, these are all just ideas for you to try out. They won’t all work perfectly for each person you’re talking to, but they are tools and techniques that can help you navigate complex situations, thoughts and feelings that come up during climate conversations.
Remember: what you’re doing is an admirable thing. Communication is so important, and has the real power to create change. So even when it gets hard, don’t give up. You’re doing better than you think.