Brands have the potential to generate consumer movements that could progress sustainable living. But are they using their power and can they really turn consumers into collaborators?
As today's electric grid moves energy from where it's generated to where it's ultimately used, some of the electricity gets lost in transmission and distribution. This is a wasteful way to keep the lights on in our society. Similar to this, in sustainability communication, much of the information we transmit leaks out somewhere along the line, getting lost in the noise and never truly reaching consumers.That's a problem because sustainability needs all the help it can get from consumers. So it's no wonder that the question of how companies can improve communications to redirect latent human energy toward sustainable behavior emerged as a key theme from last week's SXSW Eco conference.
By using innovative models and technologies, some entrepreneurs are working to enhance communications and leverage the power of the people - their purchasing prowess, personal networks, enthusiasm, expertise and influence - to commercialize greener products and foster behavior change. In her keynote address, CEO of Buzzcar, Robin Chase, said: ''the social capital inherent in individuals and their networks cannot be replicated by institutions.''
Recreating the relationship between seller and buyer was the basis for Chase's earlier venture Zipcar, which she launched in 2000. To make access to cars as convenient as ownership, Zipcar offered a pay-as-you-go model as an alternative to buying a whole car. But Zipcar also did one other important thing, Chase said. ''We turned consumers into collaborators.''
Finding the 'Social capital'
The key to unlocking excess capacity is to give people a platform for participation, Chase said. This is what social network sites such as Facebook, Skype, YouTube and Etsy have done, as well as hotel and travel communities like Airbnb and Couchsurfing. Crowdfunding is one significant way that individuals are using their financial power to support social innovation. 'Getting a groundswell of influence is one reason to crowdfund,'' said David Delcourt, co-founder and CEO of Siva Cycle, in a panel on open-source platforms. ''We chose Kickstarter because it's product driven. For us it was about validating innovation.''
With over one million users, Kickstarter allows business owners and product designers to rent the audience, while giving members a way to participate in innovation and have an impact.
To prevent crowdfunding campaigns from losing momentum once the capital raise ends, Matt Wilson, VP of Causes, advises users to ''tell stories, follow up and let them know where their money is going''. In other words, technology does not supplant the human element involved in forming the communities that embody excess capacity.
To advance a cause, social innovators and entrepreneurs should begin by connecting with influencers within existing communities, said Eric Friedenwald-Fishman, founder and director of Metropolitan Group, during his workshop on the power of voice. ''You must stand for a set of values and allow people to advance these values by aligning with you.''
Standing out of the crowd
But there is a lot of noise to overcome. ''The average American receives 45,000 branded messages per day,'' warned Friedenwald-Fishman. To engage influencers requires strategy, storytelling and framing, and an investment in tools and time to build relationships. Another essential ingredient in leveraging social networks is generosity. In her workshop on putting a network to work, Deb Nelson, executive director, at Social Venture Partners, cited a Penn study that found that generosity ultimately makes us more successful. However, she also noted that generosity does not necessarily have a direct payoff from the recipient. 'What goes around comes around, but it may take awhile,'' said Nelson. ''That is the paradox of giving and receiving.''
Giving without receiving is a mode that artists know all too well. But Shepherd Fairy, a graphic designer who rose to national prominence as the creator of Obama's iconic Hope poster, exemplified one artist who is successfully turning his creativity into currency while also promoting causes.
In his keynote, Fairey said that to inspire the power of the people, you have to be 'both evocative and provocative, intellectual and emotional''. Artists introduce ''rebellion'' into sustainability, mused Fairey, whose objective is ''making giving a shit cool''.
Advocacy, consumer-based solutions and networking are fine and well, said Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, but unless the people use their power to hit the fossil fuel industry where it hurts, not much will change. Touting divestiture - the act of selling stocks or investments - Yearwood said advocates, entrepreneurs and even nonprofits should ''have the courage to say no to foundations that take money from the fossil-fuel industry.'
A little bit of give and take
Whether directing excess capacity toward sustainable purchasing or away from unsustainable investing, a good network is one that gets people talking to each other. In his closing keynote, Adam Werbach used the example of saving circles in Mumbai, India, whose members offer each other mutual support by promising to "save every day, survey your community, and spread the word".
Werbach is now focusing on cultivating a sharing economy as the co-founder of Yerdle, an app that aims to help neighbours share. 'We started with a simple question," said Werbach. ''What if we can we get people to stop buying 25% of durable goods and borrow them instead?'' Considering that 80% of the items in our homes are used less than once a month, and self-storage is up 1,000% over the past 30 years, revisiting the old-fashioned practice of sharing might be revolutionary. The Yerdle community now has 20,000 members who are discovering that swapping stuff with their neighbors is not only cheaper, but can also be fun.
And fun is a vital ingredient for engaging people. Until we can make conservation more socially attractive than consumption, sustainable transformation is going to remain an uphill climb for all of us.
Anna Clark is the author of Green, American Style: Becoming Earth-Friendly and Reaping the Benefits and the president of EarthPeople Media, a communications firm and publisher of media related to sustainability and social innovation.