Chicago Green Jobs

Data Based Advertising: Saving Kids From Speeding Trains Since 2010
January 18, 2011, 12:07 pm
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change

Take a moment to envision an advertising agency. I bet you came up with a bunch of cooler than thou hipsters who drink and womanize in sleek, minimalist offices, right? I used to work in an advertising office so I am here to tell you that you are absolutely right! But here’s the interesting part: when it comes to trying to convince people to take action on climate change, those expensive square glasses and ironic t-shirts clothe the soul of Helen Lovejoy on the Simpsons.

Witness the collection of hilariously depressing climate change ads compiled by GOOD. A little girl staring down an oncoming train, a parade of big eyed waifs narrating their ruined future, a baby drowning in a bathtub. The idea is to make people stop and think about the consequences of their actions on future generations. Unfortunately, these ads don’t work. At all. In fact, a recent study published in Psychological Science suggests that advertisements that present children as the primary victims of climate change actually make people significantly less likely to take action.

Why “Think of the Children” Ads Don’t Work

Matthew Feinberg at the University of California, Berkeley speculated that the mechanism at play here is the “fair world” bias. Most Americans believe that life is fair and that the world is an inherently just place. When that belief is threatened, we become more likely to both reject data supporting the threat and to refuse to take action.

Feinberg and his partner, Robb Willer, devised a neat little experiment to test this idea. First, he had his subjects unscramble one of two sentences: “Somehow justice will always prevail” and “Often, justice will not prevail.” That created one group of people primed to think of the world as a just place and one group primed to think that life just isn’t fair. Then subjects took a survey rating their belief in the strength of the evidence for climate change and their willingness to take action. Next they watched the “girl on the train tracks” ad and the “clock is ticking on my future” ad. Finally, they retook the survey measuring their belief in the strength of the evidence and their willingness to take action.

Check out the findings Scientific American reported:

“participants primed to have a stronger belief in a just world reported levels of skepticism that were 29 percent higher, and a willingness to reduce their carbon footprint that was 21 percent lower, than those primed to see the world as an unjust place.”

In other words, we’ve been spending millions on ads that reduce the chances that the viewer will take action.

What Works Better

We’ve known for a few years now that the best way to get someone to change a habit is to invoke a social norm. The ideal message is “people like me do X” where X is the habit you want to encourage. This is the principle behind one of my favorite orgs, Alliance for Climate Education. Their trainers visit high schools with one of the most engaging climate change presentations I’ve ever seen. ACE trainers demonstrate to their audiences that across the nation high school students just like them are taking action and direct them to a platform that makes it easy to connect with their peers across the country and start taking action themselves. (Full disclosure: I was tangentially involved with their new Do One Thing campaign).

For a closer look at other successful social norms campaigns, check out my old pieces on convincing hotel guests to reuse their linens or convincing NASCAR fans to hate fuel economy regulations.

Data, Data, Data! I Cannot Build Bricks Without Clay!

This whole debacle is an argument for data based marketing and advertising. It’s not enough to base a behavior change campaign on gut feelings or half baked ideas about triggering emotional buttons. In fact, even if you build a campaign based on studies and scientific theories you still have to go out and test the efficacy of your program. The more information you have about how people actually react to your program the better you can make it.

And I’m not just saying that because I really hate watching babies drown while I’m trying to enjoy Castle.


Can You Teach Gumption?
December 20, 2010, 9:34 am
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change, Innovation in Education

Well, not *these* cool kids.

All the cool kids these days are interested in figuring out how to teach problem solving and critical thinking in schools. So how do you teach these things if you do if you don’t have a copy of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer or a mom as rad as that guy from Groupon has?

According to the New York Times the new chief accountability officer of the NYC Department of Education, Shael Polakow-Suransky, thinks part of the answer is overhauling standardized tests. Polakow-Suransky’s take is that since teachers are already under pressure to teach to the test we might as well give them a test that promotes the learning of useful skills. Take a look at this sample question from the NYT piece:

“Students would be asked to calculate the diameter that a straw needs to fit through a juice box’s hole, then write to a juice box manufacturer whose straws keep getting stuck in the hole to explain why its diameter should be changed.”

This is a great test question. Not only does it elicit information about math and writing skills, the structure of this question teaches three important ideas:

1. Context is everything. This problem is built around a situation in which being able to calculate the diameter of a circle would actually be useful (if not exactly thrilling). When I was a kid I delighted in claiming that I would never ever use math when I grew up, so why bother learning it? I was sort of right in that I really don’t swan around doing long division for kicks. But I was mostly wrong because now I’ll never get to be a roller coaster design engineer.

2. Problem solving is interdisciplinary. The structure of the problem communicates that having both technical skills AND communication skills will get you farther than either on their own. This is certainly true in real life where the really interesting and well paying jobs tend to be held by the well rounded. *

3. Ideas are worth sharing. Look how this question just assumes that the student has every right to start a conversation with a business executive about solving a problem. This is a subtle way to teach students that it’s a good idea to take your ideas out for a walk in the world and see how it goes.

It’s not that a kid would see this one question and be instantly inspired to devote her life to a fulfilling career in juice box design. But I bet that the cumulative effect is to make the point that a good education gives you the tools to solve problems and effectively communicate ideas rather than to memorize a bunch of the right facts.

*I can get away with this generalization because being Justin Bieber is not interesting.

Unfortunately Success is the Product of Learned Behaviors, Not Magic
December 14, 2010, 10:50 am
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change
Join this group immediately.

If you would like a halo of billions and billions of dollars join this group.

If you’ve got to go listen to one of those dreadful inspirational talks that crop up in every profession, you might as well pick the guy who decided at the tender age of 13 that he wanted to be a professional speechwriter when he grew up.  Suneel Gupta, VP of Product Development at Groupon, totally killed at a recent ChiPMA meetup with a great talk about the practical side of being a successful entrepreneur. My take on his talk is that entrepreneurship is a set of learned behaviors and attitudes – it just looks like magic in the halo of billions and billions of dollars.

Gupta’s origin story is pretty grand. It seems that one of his teachers showed the class a gripping speech by JFK. Then she showed them a picture of the guy who actually wrote the speech, which blew his mind and instantly inspired him to be that guy instead. Gupta called his mom and told her that he wanted to be a speechwriter when he grew up, and in an act of totally clutch parenting she told him that he had everything he needed to start that day. So he did. And here’s the cool part: he started biking to local politician’s offices and offering them his speeches. None of them actually used them, but eventually Bart Stupak recommended that weird kid with the ideas to Rahm Emanuel and he was on his way with his first speechwriting job.

This is a great story – it’s funny and it illustrates at least three behaviors and one truth that anyone can learn:

Three behaviors to cultivate for entrepreneurial success.

1. Ignore fake barriers. Did being 13 stop Gupta from becoming a speechwriter? Did being 12 keep Peter Wiggin from becoming Hegemon? No. No it did not. And it’s not just age – people talk themselves out of doing things because they don’t have the right degree or the right connections or a perfectly uncluttered block of time. The best way to jolt out of this rut is to…

2. Do something. This was one of Gupta’s main points and he’s got the embarrassing stories of being turned down by politician after politician to back it up. I bet those first speeches were absolutely dreadful. But they were necessary because everyone has to start someplace – no one ever in the history of time has created perfection on the first try. Which means that you have to…

3. Get the hang of fucking up. As a perfectionist I think this is the hard part. I’m working on convincing myself that it’s like learning how to fall in martial arts: it’s the first thing you learn and one of the most important because if you can’t do it right then even if you become the best eventually you’ll get hurt really, really badly. The trick is to learn from your failures and apply the learning to the next iteration instead of collapsing into a miserable wet heap of self-loathing. That’s right folks – you learned it here first!

And here’s the one big truth: Everyone – even Rahm Emanuel – wants to work with people who care enough about the work that they are willing to ignore fake barriers, do something, and get the hang of fucking up. You can teach skills but you can’t teach attitude.

Truth in Advertising: Humble Oil Tells It Like It Is
November 24, 2009, 10:15 am
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change

Quick: which of these two statements makes a better headline?

“If every American household installed a WaterSense labeled toilet, we could save more than 640 billion gallons of water each year.

“If every American household installed a WaterSense labeled toilet, we could save enough water to equal 15 days of flow over Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls, right? That thing is huge! Translating abstract numbers into tangible examples is a core tenet of our approach to inspiring behavior change. It’s basic human psychology: the more real the  consequences of our actions are to us the more likely we are to tweak them.

But there’s nothing new under the sun, and we aren’t the first to hit on this particular tactic. Check out this fabulous ad Humble Oil (now Exxon) ran in a 1962 Life Magazine:

Image available in a 1962 Life Magazine on Google Books

Yup, that’s right: Back then Humble Oil supplied enough energy every day to melt 7 million tons of glacier. Vivid! And who says there isn’t truth in advertising?

Curious to know just how many million tons of glacier Exxon can melt every day right now? Check out Pablo Paster’s excellent analysis on Treehugger.

Copenhagen, Climate Change, and the Art of the Possible
October 23, 2009, 4:20 pm
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change

Word on the street is that the Copenhagen climate change talks will not result in a treaty this year. Most of the reactions I’ve seen tend to fall into two camps: “this delay is the triumph of Evil Corporate Interests™ over the common good” and “this is a victory of economic rationality over Tree Hugging Hippies™.”  Needless to say, these are not especially useful frames. So what are we to make of this delay?

The most important thing to remember is that the world has moved from a scientific debate about whether or not climate change is happening to a policy debate about what we’re going to do about it. It may not always feel that way when polls show that Americans are getting more doubtful about the existence of climate change,  but when the Pentagon, Desmond Tutu, and the World Bank are working on the same problem that’s a good sign that action is in the offing.

Politics, however, is the art of the possible.  According to the NYT, Yvo De Boer, the Dutch diplomat who oversees the negotiations, thinks hammering out a good agreement will take at least another year: “There isn’t sufficient time to get the whole thing done. The form I would like [the session] to take is the groundwork for a ratifiable agreement next year.”

Do we have another year to burn on this? I think we do. The interests and issues around managing climate change are complicated in the extreme, and we need to get this treaty right.  Let’s take a look at some of the key issues that need untangling:


“The reality that we face is that the cause of the fundamental emissions which result in global warming are to a large extent the responsibility … of developed countries,” Alf Wills, South Africa’s top climate negotiator, according to the NYT.

If there’s one thing all the major players agree on, it’s that climate-change triggered drought, disease, and displacement will disproportionately affect the residents of the countries that contributed the least to the problem in the first place.  The leaders of developing countries are keenly aware of this injustice, and are determined not to agree to a treaty that would require them to limit their economic growth to meet CO2 reduction targets.

In fact, India and China just signed a pact to unite against a climate treaty that requires developing countries to adhere to binding emission limits. Their united front will lend serious negotiating strength to the Group of 77 developing countries who are all striving to balance their responsibilities towards creating economic growth with the imperative to mitigate climate change. However, this anti-binding cuts stance is not sitting well with developed countries.


“We don’t want to close a steel mill in Canada and import steel from China. We don’t want to close a coal- powered generating station in Ontario and then import dirty coal- fired electricity from Michigan.” Canadian Environment Minister John Baird, according to Bloomberg

China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest emitter of CO2, with India on track to become the third largest emitter by 2015. A treaty that places no binding emissions restrictions on developing countries would not only hand a strong economic advantage to two of the biggest contributors to the problem, it also opens the door to a scenario in which rising emissions from developing countries negate all the cuts developed countries make.  That is a risk that  developed countries are unprepared to take, especially in the midst of an already painful economic downturn. This is the reason President Bush refused to push for the ratification of the Kyoto treaty, and President Obama has signaled that he may not accept a treaty that doesn’t include binding limits.


“Maldivians have lived in these islands for over 2,000 years; and we don’t want to trade paradise for an environmental refugee camp,” President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed.

A rise in world temperatures will have a net negative impact worldwide, but again some regions will be hit harder than others and most of those regions are in the developing world. So who should pay for developing nations to adapt to climate change: the governments themselves or the countries that emitted all the CO2 on their path to robust economic growth? A recent World Bank study estimates the costs for developing countries of adapting to climate change at about $100 billion per year for the next forty years, which is about twice as much as current levels of aid.  Developed countries want any aid money to be tied to binding emissions cuts in developing countries, a stance that the G77 strongly opposes.


“We’ve been taught, especially in America, that happiness will be at the end of some sort of material road, where we have lots and lots of things that we want,” Peter Whybrow, author of American Mania: When More Is Not Enough, according to Wired.

Successfully adapting to a carbon constrained world will ultimately require a shift in how we think about some of our deepest values and associations. How many of us equate a big juicy steak with celebration? How many of us see soft, air-dried toilet paper made from old growth forests as a non-negotiable comfort?  These things may seem trivial, but they are symptomatic of a strong strain in American culture of equating success with consumption. That’s a mighty hard mindset to change, and it’s a very easy one to export to other countries.  The negotiators hammering out that treaty are attuned to the willingness of the people they represent to make the changes that an effective treaty will require.

So What Can We Do?

This is quite a list of issues to untangle. In fact, I’d say that the negotiations around hammering out an effective climate change treaty are the most complicated that the international community has ever attempted. We have to get this right.  A one year delay is worth it if it results in a treaty that has the kind of buy-in to make it stick.

In the meantime, what can we do? Ultimately the responsibility for tackling climate change rests with all of us: the actions we take every day and the messages we send the leaders who are hammering out solutions at the legislative and corporate level. If you want to see a real climate treaty ratified, the most important thing you can do now is work to create powerful social movements to support action on climate change.

So tell me: what’s your PSP?

Is Austerity The Answer?
September 18, 2009, 6:52 pm
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change

Want to see strong climate change legislation enacted? Look to the health care reform debate for a map to all the obstructions ahead. Corporate money shaping the debate? Check. Regional interests trumping national interests? Check. Public debate centering on emotion rather than logic? Absolutely. Hell, 39% of the country believes that government should keep out of Medicare, which is and always has been a government-run program.

If You Can’t Beat’em, Join’em

This is not an appeal to reason

This is not an appeal to reason

Since rational debate is a lost cause, there’s a lively debate over the best way to make a compelling emotional appeal for strong climate change legislation.  Ann Danylkiw of  World Coloured Glasses has an interesting post up on the role of the media in convincing people to change their behavior in service of the greater good. Ann interviewed a psychologist and an economist on this subject, and she synthesizes their ideas here:

Taking a step back, during and before both world wars propaganda campaigns were waged by governments to aid the war effort. More specifically, during World War II, the British government needed the British population to behave in a certain way: austere behavior in the buying and use of goods. Austerity, green-economic experts like Andrew Simms believe, needs to be revived to make the public transition to the mentality necessary to adapt to climate change and continue to survive on this planet.

It’s an appealing idea, isn’t it? Who doesn’t love those great “Keep Calm and Carry On” propaganda posters from the World War II era! Unfortunately for graphic designers everywhere, that approach will not work to convince the public of the necessity of changing our behavior around climate change. Let’s drill down into that British Austerity example to see why.

Austerity Propaganda: Making a Virtue of Necessity

Well, have you?

Well, have you?

The British austerity propaganda campaigns were designed to make a virtue of necessity, not to convince people to voluntarily change their behavior. In 1939 on the eve of war, Great Britain was only 30% self sufficient in terms of food production.  The Germans had very nearly starved them out in World War I by attacking their supply ships, so this time the government had the political capital to institute a strict food rationing plan early in January of 1940.  Eventually the list of rationed products covered most of the necessities of life: bread, eggs, meat, milk, bread, preserves, sugar, clothes, soap, petrol, and, above all, bacon.

The austerity propaganda campaign worked for two reasons:

1. Rationing was mandatory, not a personal choice. Rationing was a government program that touched every single citizen – pregnant women even got ration books for their unborn children.

2. Rationing was a response to a clear and present national security threat. No one liked it, but everyone understood that rationing food was a specific, high impact action they could take to help win the war.

For better or for worse, the context in which we are attempting to pull off effective climate change legislation is absolutely nothing like World War II era Great Britain. Not only are there no mandatory actions people must take to combat climate change, there are strong pressures against taking voluntary action. How many times has someone attempted to pop your do-gooder balloon by pointing out that no matter how low you set your thermostat the impact you have will be overpowered by the new coal-fired power plants shooting up in China? Climate change as a national security threat is a bit more promising; the pentagon has begun running war games based on climate change scenarios.  Alas, even those scenarios are still too remote. Running out of food and being overrun by the Kaiser is much more compelling than the prospect of paying slightly higher taxes to intervene in water wars in Africa.

Dig For Plenty

Plenty: I'm for it!

Plenty: I'm for it!

So if an austerity campaign won’t work, what will? Opulence, of course! Effective messaging emphasizes how much people gain from acting responsibly. The gain can be personal: losing weight, saving money, enjoying a better work/life balance. It can also be abstract: pride in American ingenuity and leadership.

Ultimately, the most compelling way to give people a stake in climate legislation is to show that there will be more winners than losers.  No messaging campaign can succeed without practical investment in developing green industries that will create good local jobs. Alas for the ouster of Van Jones! But we must Keep Calm and Carry On developing strong jobs and communicating about them effectively.

5 Rules For Effective Communication About Sustainability
June 10, 2009, 7:16 pm
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change
When innovation goes wild: The Rockland Walmart's Personal Sustainability Float made from all recycled materials for the 60th Annual Lobster Parade. And yes, that is an eight foot long lobster made of coke cans.

When innovation goes wild: The Rockland Walmart's Personal Sustainability Float made from all recycled materials for the 60th Annual Lobster Parade. And yes, that is an eight foot long lobster made of coke cans.

“Talking to my colleagues about going green is impossible – I wind up feeling like some hideous combination of the grinch and a nanny. And not the fun Mary Poppins kind, either.” Ah, the lament of the corporate green teamer! How to fix this?

The good news is that sustainability is inherently appealing. Most folks want to be powerful and creative and impactful in their daily lives, and sustainability offers a new lens for approaching problems and ideas. That’s pretty darn appealing to lots of people IF you can frame it up properly.

In my work with companies on developing a culture of sustainability, I follow five rules for effective communication that help me avoid becoming a nanny-grinch:

1. Meet people where they are. Defeat the perception that environmentalists are a bunch of tree-hugging hippies by connecting environmental sustainability to quality of life issues like personal health, community, and professional development and innovation.

2. Aim for finding common ground, not being right. It’s so very tempting to try to win arguments about, say, climate change. But it’s so much more effective to look for an environmental issue you can agree on, like health or air quality, and start the conversation from there.

3. Seek results, not purity of intent. The person who turns down her thermostat to save money on her electricity bill has just as much impact as the person who turns down his thermostat to cut his carbon footprint.

4. Invite, don’t command. All people respond better to enthusiastic invitations to make a difference than guilt-laden commands to stop ruining the planet. A successful engagement program is voluntary.

5. Small steps have a big impact. For every coffee drinker in America, there is a worker somewhere in the world whose livelihood depends on coffee.  Switching to Intelligentsia’s excellent and responsibly sourced coffee beans helps the worker depending on your caffeine addiction earn a living wage.

When an organization is able to engage the majority of their people in a conversation around sustainability and strategy, two types of action begin bubbling up:

Innovation: There is no such thing as a sustainability expert – sustainability is too big.  Instead, there are thousands of experts at all levels of an organization. Inviting all your people to use sustainability as a tool set to innovate improvements in their area of expertise will lead to dozens of ideas to save money, save the planet, and improve operations. Just make sure to have a channel for those ideas to bubble up.

Ownership: If your employees buy-in to your vision for having a positive impact by using double sided printing and turning lights off when you leave the room, then they’ll take responsibility for implementation instead of staying with their same old habits. And when your strategy for sustainability includes implementing the innovations your people developed, you see even more ownership across all levels.

I’ve seen employees adopt a local grizzly bear refuge, build a parade float out of coke cans, compete over reducing their office electricity bill, organize carpooling, and create green product displays that sell out right away. Once people make that personal connection to the idea of sustainability there is just no stopping the ideas.