Effectively conveying sustainable consumption initiatives requires thoughtful appeals to a broad range of constituents and policy makers. Messages that emphasize ‘what we gain’ over ‘what we must give up’, and highlight the benefits to individuals, families and communities should prove more successful in avoiding the following common pitfalls:
Pitfall: Primary focus on environmental benefits
Environmental aspects and benefits of sustainable consumption should not be ignored. However, it may be best to list them as co-benefits and not as the primary drivers for initiatives. According to framing expert Cara Pike, “While the environmental orientation appeals to the eco-minded, sustainability is not [a priority] for those who do not prioritize environmental values and/or may be put off by the perception that environmentalists are elitists and out of touch with the realities and needs of the average citizen” (Pike 2015, 16).
Pitfall: Using jargon
Academics and nonprofit leaders sometimes use theoretical, global or overly specific language that is unfamiliar or off-putting to the general public. Pike emphasizes that although “...concepts such as circular economy, collaborative consumption, or low carbon futures may be intuitive to those close to the issue, public understanding or relevancy cannot be assumed” (Pike 2015, 3)
Pike describes the “curse of consciousness” that can occur when a person engages with sustainable consumption choices. For many, “guilt is a major barrier to engagement” and becoming aware of the negative consequences of current or past decisions can create a level of guilt that makes the newly awakened wish they could be ignorant to the issues.
Individuals may also feel ostracized, ”...for their green attitudes (i.e. holier than thou stigma), or experience discomfort with unwanted attention (i.e. check out what the hippie/crunchy granola is doing),” says Pike. This stigma can lead to feelings of social isolation, and alleviating that isolation may have a more powerful influence than behaving in ways that align with a community member’s sustainability values.
Pitfall: Focusing on individual actions instead of systemic changes
Pike’s research reveals that a sense of fatalism can come about from focusing on individual lifestyle choices as opposed to larger systemic change. Individuals may believe that although they are willing to change their behaviors, others are not willing to do so, which limits the amount of impact they are making. The effects of overemphasizing individual choice can compound when systems that would enable these changes are either inaccessible or nonexistent (e.g., consumers may not choose to repair instead of buying new if they don’t live or work near a repair business).