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Your words matter – how big organizations accidentally hinder sustainable change

Yesterday while scrolling through my LinkedIn feed, I came across the following article  from the World Economic Forum about SDG communication.

90% of plastic polluting our oceans comes from just 10 rivers

Written by guest blogger Mona Jensen. Mona is a content- and copywriter specialized in behavioral change. She works with companies that promote sustainability and a greener way of life. Read more at somethinggreen.org.

SDG communication

This is a really interesting subject and I wanted to know more. However, what really got me, was the words the WEF decided should go along with it:

Eight of them are in Asia, two in Africa

Source: World Economic Forum

‘Urg’ I thought to myself. ‘That’s a bad choice of words for this piece’.

The World Economic Forum, an International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation, is committed to improving the state of the world. This  makes the above even more problematic.

Though in line with the article and truthful in its nature, that small sentence does way more harm than good and is working as a hindrance for sustainable development.

Why words matter in SDG communication

Let’s deconstruct the sentence. By writing ’Eight of them are in Asia, two in Africa’, it’s easy to infer, that no other continent in the world is home to one of the rivers causing 90% of the pollution. This is still completely true and in line with the article but it has unfortunate side effects:

  1. You are basically saying to everyone outside these geographical areas, that this problem is confined to two specific regions. It makes people outside these areas distance themselves from the problem, seeing as it’s “over there”. It becomes Somebody Else’s Problem*
  2. People who actively take steps to lower their plastic waste feel discouraged because they are let to believe that their actions have no impact at all. This will leave them less likely to want to change their habits or push for change in the future.

Additionally, you risk enhancing old believes that Asia and Africa do not care about the environment. This is, of course, a generalization. Not to mention an outdated view of the two continents. Unfortunately, the western part of the world still views Asia and Africa as lazy, indifferent or unknowledgeable to environmental issues.

What to do instead

Had they instead chosen a solution orientated caption, they could have fed into the positive wave of change already taken place around the world – the focus on oceanic plastic pollution. If the World Economic Forum wanted to leave the reader more informed but also more likely to support anti-pollution initiatives in the future, they could have replaced the caption with something like this:

‘By knowing which 10 we can focus on targeted solutions, with higher success rates’ 

They could even just have copied points from the article itself, for instance:

‘The rivers all had two things in common; a generally high population living in the surrounding region – sometimes into the hundreds of millions – and a less than ideal waste management process’

Why it works

The first example is simply putting a positive outlook on a dire situation. Yes, the ocean is filled with plastic, but by pinpointing the 10 biggest sources, we can act.

Action is the key word, because only presenting your audience with the (often negative) facts of global pollution issues and climate change, serves as an emotional paralyzer. What the heart hears is: The world sucks and no one, especially you, can do anything about it, so you might as well go back to facebook and kittens.

Instead, by choosing a more positive angle you are telling your audience, yes, this is a bad situation, but knowing the facts about it gives us the power to act.

In the second example, you would be getting even more specific in regards to what needs to be done, in order to turn the problem around.

It would send a signal that 90% of the world’s oceanic plastic pollution is caused by manageable problems that we already know the solutions to – waste management. Having spent half a decade in waste management, I guarantee you that less than ideal waste management is not the same as impossible waste management.

But wasn’t it just click bait?

Possibly. I mean, I clicked on the article. One could argue, that the caption is just right. It evokes resentfulness towards the places responsible for it. But then what? You would have to read the article to the end to get the positive news. And even this is still an issue because you just confirmed the preconceived notion that Asia doesn’t care. This means  that your audience is actually more likely to dismiss the positive news about the advances in Asia because it contradicts a strong held believe – that Asia pollutes, and don’t care. This is what’s known as the backfire effect. You can find a more colorful description of the backfire effect here.

Even if it is just a click-bait aimed at the WEF’s target audience, would you really want to risk pushing everyone who scrolls past the article even further away from taking action on the subject?

Small tweaks – Big outcome

I chose to write about this specific article from the World Economic Forum, for two reasons. Firstly, because of their inherent role as a promoter of sustainable change. Secondly, because their article was well written and had a great balance of facts and behavioral change elements.

The article clarifies how big of an effort China is making to intensify waste management. It also  mentions Delhi’s ban on disposable plastic. Furthermore, at the bottom of the article, you can find links to articles about how to combat plastic pollution. Also known as a call to action.

I want to stress that I think weforum.org overall produces great content and I am a happy reader. Like this nice whale piece, below. It has a positive headline and caption, as well as a great photo – there’s even a sea pun!

SDG communication

But the devil is in the detail, and small tweaks like the above can push sustainable development much faster.

By empowering the audience with a positive outlook, you are allowing for much more support towards passing the necessary legislation, investing in alternative products or cleanup technologies, and willingness to change habits. Like giving your audience concrete advice on social media, complete with jokes and pictures.

This also means saving time and money for the companies and regulatory bodies working to solve the problem. But most importantly, you work towards removing more plastic out of our oceans. You can learn more about this in our blog posts about SDG 6 -clean water and sanitation as well as SDG 11 – sustainable cities and commnities.

*As coined by the great Douglas Adam, Somebody Else’ Problem refers to people’s ability to simply ignore things they don’t want to deal with.

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