Many sustainability experts have grappled and struggled with understanding what truly motivates behavior change, trying to design better systems and tools to achieve real world impact. At our core, we all ultimately want to leave the planet a better place for future generations; to live in a world of purpose and ultimately live a life of impact.

We read articles about how a one degree change in temperature has the ability to redo the global map as we know it, putting any coastal community at risk to disappear. We understand these truths and want to make a difference, but more often than not the inertia of life takes over and it’s back to business as usual. How do we break the cycle and motivate ourselves—if not millions—to take action? What works better: do we continue to use doom and gloom to prompt change, or, as an alternative, do we educate and motivate citizens of the world about the greener, but more importantly smarter, choices that can actually benefit and enhance our lives, and the world around them today?

Obviously, fear evokes a strong emotional response, but it may not be effective in the sustainability and environmental industry. As Talking Climate has pointed out, fear-mongering only truly affects behavior when there is a deep, personal connection with the issue. Although the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s graphic anti-smoking commercials featuring gruesome clips of people with maladies from the side effects of smoking are certainly haunting, other approaches that involve a more creative, thought provoking trigger may be more effective.

For example, some have called Thailand’s Smoking Kid campaign the “the best anti-smoking ad ever.” The commercial is centered on two young children, cigarette in hand, asking adult smokers for a light. Surprised and disheartened, the smokers proceed to give a litany of reasons why smoking is bad. After the well-meant lecture comes to an end, the children then hand over a note asking, “You worry about me. But why not about yourself?” Then the note prompts them to call Thailand’s Quit Smoking Hotline. The look on the smokers’ faces tells a story that no fear mongering campaign could ever hope to accomplish.

The juxtaposition of a child’s innocence against the smokers’ disregard for their own well-being sheds light on an interesting phenomenon. What does it take for people to be reminded of the better, smarter choices in life? People usually know what the right thing to do is, but what’s the most effective way to really change their behavior? The ad forces people to think about the subject and their own actions, without eliciting an overwhelmingly negative emotional or paralyzing response. It focused on how the behavior impacts their future and future generations without relying on scare tactics. Ultimately, this approach was very effective in helping people change their habitats. There was nearly a 40% increase in calls to Thailand’s Quit Smoking Hotline. While climate change is serious business, the fear factor isn’t resonating with the majority of people. How do we break the cycle and motivate people to take action and create change without overwhelming them?

Put simply, we need to change our tactics and design a “system” that works. We need to engage the individual to make smarter everyday choices by making sustainability accessible and offering viable, relevant solutions that establish a personal connection. We need to highlight the many benefits a sustainable lifestyle offers people on a daily basis. We also need to engage the public and private sector in this challenge if we want to address this problem at scale.

There are myriad ways to create this culture of hope around sustainability. Engagement, education, and gamification are ways to get people in the door of sustainable living, as it provides a real-time, personal reward for actions that will pay more distant dividends to the environment. For some, connecting environmental issues to something tangible in their own day-to-day experience creates that bond necessary to feel changing individual behaviors is worth it. And using gamified, educational content—and tying it to the impact they are having—keeps individuals engaged, can make these changes habitual, and can show the collaborative effect of everyone’s small actions.

Working with local communities and businesses to increase recycling rates by rewarding citizens for the amount they recycle, we’ve been able to see real change in behavior. The equation of incentives + education + measurement makes sure that the small actions become habits as individuals realize the benefit of their choices on many levels: personal, local and global. This strategy, along with single-stream recycling, helped Bridgeport, Connecticut, increase the recycling participation rate by 67%, as compared to the previous two-year period. And recycling, we also know, is the gateway to more sustainable actions, including reduce, reuse, compost, and other smarter choices that will lead to a more sustainable future.

We at Recyclebank are not the only ones recognizing how important it is to the future of our environment to change perception around sustainability and the effects it has on climate change. Companies like TerraCycle, Practically Green, and Opower are also working to educate and develop those personal connections with the individual across many levels. Alice Waters has been a champion of eco-education, specifically “edible education” within our schools for years. Her Edible Schoolyard project has brought more than 7,000 students face-to-face with sustainable consumption by building a garden and caring for it in an eco-friendly way. Students in Berkley, California, the site of Waters’s first garden, are proof that this engagement can have lasting impact. Those students now collect rainwater in two 3,500-gallon cisterns and maintain a coop with chickens and ducks. Instead of focusing on the pitfalls of commercial agriculture, Waters encouraged and empowered students to look at the beauty of the alternative and embrace it as a way of life.

The road to a sustainable global future involves many complicated interchanges, and while one individual action won’t change that, if we mobilize individuals at scale, systemic change will follow. As Margaret Meade once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The trick is to create a balance addressing important environmental issues in a way that is manageable and positive—as an industry we need to change our approach to promote and facilitate action—and focus on the pleasures, gratification, and enjoyment of our positive actions. Or as William McDonough has so eloquently stated in his more recent book Upcycle, we have an opportunity to focus on “more good” rather than “less bad.” We need to understand and educate people about the problems, but our focus needs to be on the beauty and promise of the solutions.

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