During the last decade of the 20th century, pressing environmental issues – in addition to a rapid spread of awareness and advocacy – has galvanized support of more environmental conscious legislation and personal habits. There’s no debating it: more people than ever are concerned about a global state of environmental health. Simply put, those of us who have bitten the “Green” apple have lost our environmental innocence: we know what effects our behaviors and consumer choices have on the environment.
So why, then, do we see record greenhouse gas levels? If more people are aware of serious environmental issues, climate change being one of the largest of them all, we should expect to see changing behaviors and choices that support a cleaner, greener planet. Strangely, we have not.
This has been dubbed the “Green Gap” – the discrepancy between our green intentions and our green actions. The most stark example of this can be found with the 90 percent of Americans who value energy efficiency, when, in contrast, there is only a dismal 3 percent who follow through by turning their PC off at night.* If we hope to live in a sustainable society, we must close this green gap.
In the following article, we will briefly examine two sides of the attitude-behavior equation and attempt to triangulate a solution for the green gap. We begin with the challenge of growing energy and environmental knowledge.
Growing Energy and Environmental Knowledge
Traditionally, green advocates and marketing campaigns have focused on changing the attitudes and beliefs of people as a means to propagate a mass green movement. By and large, we have been remarkably successful at getting people to change their beliefs (just look, for example, at the 90 percent of Americans who value energy efficiency). We’ve done this in a number of ways, with differing levels of success:
Environmental education has been a hallmark on the changing attitudes toward the environment. Whether it has been through outright environmental advocacy or simple, more traditional courses, students of late 20th century onward are more global in their thinking, and in effect, more aware of systemic planetary functions and problems.
In environmental charter schools, we often see a stronger emphasis on action, while in traditional schools the topic is treated with less behavioral focus.
Advertising and Greenwashing
To many, the government has failed to position itself as a leader of the green movement. This leaves businesses and corporations to fill the vacuum of leadership. Many companies have embraced the emerging consciousness, often because its own leaders are passionate and serious about environment conservancy. With most established companies, whom may have environmentally unsound track records, environmentalists label any advertising as “greenwashing”, or the deceptive use of marketing to make consumers believe a product or company is green when it really isn’t. While greenwashing does well to spread awareness and normalize the green movement, it does little of substance regarding environmental protection.
The Personally Observed
Finally, many have had their environmental knowledge expanded or reinforced through personal observations. Environmental catastrophes, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, help sculpt national consciousness, while more localized environmental issues, be it water contamination from fracking or hypoxia due to fertilizer use in the mid west, help sculpt local consciousness.
The Problem of the Green Gap: Should we Focus on Behavior?
By and large, these factors have galvanized attitudinal “support” for more environmentally friendly products and policies, but have yet to realize changes in our personal habits. In four different areas, it is evident that our measure of importance and behavior elicit a green gap. Below, a study done by Mainstream Green reflects these four areas (click to enlarge).
Clearly there is a discrepancy between our attitudes and actions, and most notably in transportation (which, by the way, is our most inefficient sector of our energy use, as well as a top source of carbon emissions). Because of transportation’s importance, it has been discussed at length in regards to sustainability. Here, there is a turn to changing people’s behaviors rather than attitudes or beliefs. As argued by Lynne Carter in the Journal of Science Education and Technology, “[reducing] emissions will require changes in human behavior.”
The same conclusion was drawn by Mainstream Green. They argued, “Closing the Green Gap is a necessary step if we are to create a sustainable society… [but] the future of the world depends on the behavior of these giant, energetic, polyglot societies [China and the United States]” (emphasis added).
By encouraging behavioral changes rather than attitudinal ones, we focus less on how people feel about the topics and more on making these topics digestable, normal, and socially imperative. As put by Mainstream Green, “If we want green behaviors to be widespread, then we need to treat them as mass ideas with mass communications, not elite ideas with niche communications.”
Turning Literacy Into Action: Normalization and Gamification
So how do we do this? How do we turn literate ‘greens’ and ‘non-greens’ into people who follow through with green behaviors?
We see two critical steps to this: first, as mentioned above, we must begin to normalize and popularize green. It cannot be seen as a fray movement, nor should it be seen as an elitist cause for those more wealthy. It is this normalcy that is sustainable, and it is this normalcy that will lead to widespread adoption of attitudes, and more importantly, behaviors.
A second step, which may be critical in the initial conversions of people, is gamifying green. This refers to incorporating game mechanics into the green lifestyle, its products, and its behaviors. We’ve seen this in normal marketing techniques, be it through “earning points” or more goods when purchasing in bulk or even leveraging our subconscious hedonistic desires to influence habits. Truth is, gamification is becoming a critical part of every business, as more and more of our youth are actively involved in game environments.
From our point of view, gamification is essential for closing the green gap. This means quick feedback (say, real time apps that measure energy use), clear goals and rules of play (say, personally set or utility company challenges), a compelling narrative (this will be reflected in our already changing attitudes), and tasks that are challenging but also achievable (for example, cutting down energy costs by restricting power to outlets, as well as encouraging home sustainability measures like rain gardens or solar panels).
With these two tools – normalization and gamification – we will undoubtedly see the closing of the green gap, and our growing knowledge and literacy of green will be put to action. Now all that’s left if for businesses to lead the way.
*Special thanks to Mainstream Green, by Graceann Bennett & Freya Williams (PDF). This paper was a tremendous help, as well as a key source for thinking through this topic.