Sustainability campaign could take a lesson from the organic movement’s shortcomings

It can be difficult to admit that a cause in which you have been deeply involved for most of your career has not been successful. We all have our own perspectives on what constitutes success and failure, of course, but when I look back on the history of the organic food movement, it seems to me that our efforts have largely failed. To those who would vehemently disagree, I can only reply that after three decades of marketing organic food, shouldn’t its share of the market be greater than a mere three percent? Shouldn’t it be more available and affordable by now to all consumers, and not just the affluent and the LOHAS crowds, and those who live in close proximity to a Whole Foods market?  The fact that we haven’t done better after all this time is something that really gets to me, because it didn’t have to be this way if we had coordinated our efforts better and focused more on the critical factors of price and convenience, as well as educating the average shopper.

It has gotten to the point, in fact, where at dinner parties or get-togethers where I have to take part in those awkward around- the-dinner-table introductions, I simply introduce myself as an eco-entrepreneur with a lot of arrows in my back (starting with those I acquired during my time as CEO of the ill-fated New Organics Company).

None of which is to say that the organic movement still can’t take off. The products, after all, have improved immensely in quality and taste since the early days of the movement, and we now have a foothold in the general retail sector.  But it’s going to involve an uphill effort, and it needn’t have been nearly so difficult nor have taken so long.

So perhaps you’ll forgive me if I now seem to be harping on what I see as similar mistakes we’re making in promoting sustainability.  I am concerned that, just as with organic food, we are failing to emphasize the elements that could make the idea more appealing to most people, which are fun and festivity. By way of illustration, when we were conceiving a slogan for the Humane Society of the United States, the one settled on was “Celebrating Animals, Confronting Cruelty” – with the ‘celebrating” aspect coming before the “confrontation” part. Another example of what I mean is the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, a highly successful campaign begun a quarter century ago, which now draws nearly nine million volunteers in more than 150 nations. When I once asked whether it might be better to have a storm drain cleanup every month, one of the organizers replied that the appeal of this event was that it was a “fun activity” – even though it admittedly involves hours of hard work.

My point is, to be really effective, efforts to promote sustainability have to be incentivized in order to encourage wide popular support and participation. It’s not enough to simply warn people about the dire consequences of wasting resources – any more than talking about the risks of pesticides and GMOs to our health and our environment is enough in itself to get shoppers to opt for overpriced and underrepresented organic food.

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