Do small steps actually lead anywhere? We all know the theory that small steps lead to bigger steps, which lead in turn to real change. And there are certainly a lot of small steps on offer these days, from the latest home energy tracker to the solar bikini. But it's not at all clear that the ready abundance of small steps is actually making any difference. Indeed, between greenwashing and green fatigue, emphasizing little behavioral changes may actually be hurting.
Until recently, suggesting that "going green" in this fashion wasn't a correct path was a quick route to condemnation. But now, some of the world's most prestigious environmental advocates are beginning to call for a whole new approach.
WWF recently published a major report, Weathercocks and Signposts: the environment movement at a crossroads, which launches a major assault on green consumerism and social marketing as avenues to sustainability, and encourages instead a new and more committed values-based approach.
Specifically, the report says:
Pro-environmental behavioural change strategies often stress the importance of small and painless steps – frequently in the expectation that, once they have embarked upon these steps, people will become motivated to engage in more significant behavioural changes. Often, these strategies place particular emphasis on the opportunities offered by 'green consumption' – either using marketing techniques to encourage the purchase of environmentally-friendly products, or applying such techniques more generally to create behavioural change even where there is no product involved.
We talked with Dr. Tom Crompton, the study's author, who shed some interesting light on their conclusion that to create lasting change, groups working for environmental change should be targeting the intrinsic set of values that motivates the public, rather than tantalizing their extrinsic desires.
Social marketers argue that it doesn't matter why people are doing good as long as they're doing good. Crompton's research suggests that the reasons for their actions matter enormously, and in many ways determine how much good they will ultimately do.
The current marketing-based approach is fatally flawed, Crompton says. His work debunks the popularly held "foot-in-the-door" mantra (change your light bulb today, and you'll move to a walkable neighborhood and sell your car before you know it!), with documented psychological research revealing little evidence to support that individuals will continue to move up the sustainability ladder. Instead, actually, "There is some evidence that … individuals rest on their laurels," Crompton says: consumers often make some small steps and stop.
But the report's other findings are even more worrying: small steps, even when they do open the door to greater environmental understanding, are rarely followed by calls for the kinds of profound change that sustainability actually demands. Consumers may be encouraged to change their light bulbs, even to buy a more fuel-efficient car, for instance, but they're rarely then encouraged to support the sort of carbon pricing investments in transit and large-scale urban redesign efforts that curtailing emissions will actually demand. After all, "why should I support price hikes on gasoline if I've been led to believe these problems can be fixed by changing my light bulbs?"
Spending too much energy on relatively marginal changes "is also a diversion from greater acceptance of the need for more radical environmental change in our democracies." The time it takes to think about and keep track of all the little things a person could be doing eats up the time that person could be spending being more effectively an advocate, while the message of privatized responsibility for environmental problems undermines their essentially political nature.
What's worse, he says, is that the over-marketing of small steps can actually backfire, producing rebound effects. Having installed CFL bulbs, a consumer may then plow the money he saves on his power bill into purchasing a new plasma-screen TV, and end up using far more energy that he did in the first place.
To get beyond the small steps and change the fabric of the debate, Crompton says, we need to engage the values that underpin public discussion. For example, appeal to people's sense of connection to the natural world. And he insists that this isn't the same as heartstrings-tugging approaches we've seen before. Asking the public to save the panda out of moral obligation, because we feel guilty, is not the answer. What previous campaigns have missed is that the world we hope to build as we progress towards sustainability is not just a world that offers a better quality of life, it's a world that's more in alignment with the sort of fundamental values (from concern for our children to connection to nature to a sense of duty) that most define us as human beings. When we are at our best, we are capable of extraordinary things.
"I'm not persuaded that humankind at its best is explainable in the limited frame of a social marketing perspective," Crompton says.
There's little argument that "green" is now mainstream: The LOHAS market now claims to represent more than $209 billion in annual sales in the U.S. Bookstore shelves are likely buckling under this year's slew of green titles. And the public rewards green marketing with both trust and approval: consumers surveyed in the U.S., UK, Mexico, Brazil, Germany and France now look to brands, not governments, to solve the climate crisis. Small steps have become big business: green is now Big Green.
But we also know that "green" is not working. Both carbon emissions and ecological footprints continue to increase across the developed world.
The question is, How do we cut through the chatter to reach people with strong values-based messages? That's WWF's next, very big, step. We're eager to see where it leads.