Connecting the Dots in 2019

by Jan 10, 2019

I married into a French family, which means I spend my Christmas holidays every year in a little village outside of Rennes in Brittany on the west coast of France. We arrived this year in the middle of the Yellow Vest movement, intensive protests over a proposed gasoline tax – a tax meant to incentivize people to drive less to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change.

As you’ve probably read and can read in the link above, this was a tone-deaf policy proposal. For all its public transportation, there are MANY villages and outskirt areas of the country that do not have access to public transportation. Not driving to get to work or to get groceries simply isn’t an option. And many French people are stretched pretty thin already – wage growth is stagnant, taxes are high and costs keep going up. This tax was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and unearthed many feelings of being stuck and screwed and opened the floodgates to a proverbial, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” stand.

I asked family members throughout my trip, “How’s life in France?” and I repeatedly heard, “Not great. People are angry.” And, maybe an indicator/maybe not, I noticed a LOT more graffiti in public places throughout Rennes. There’s always been a little on the sides of train cars, under bridges and on dumpsters. But it’s now on the sides of buildings as well. And there’s a lot of it. So, it struck me that some people aren’t just angry. They’re destructive. And we’ve certainly seen that in the Yellow Vest protests – nobody in my French family could ever think of another time when the Arc de Triomphe had been defaced in protest of a government policy.

This all got me thinking about what’s happening in America. I have read a fair amount about the rise of populism, and I’ve sought to understand how we arrived at a Trump presidency. The insight that has made the most sense to me is that many working class Americans – the Trump base – feel much like the Yellow Vesters in France. They feel like they’ve gotten screwed out of the American dream. They were told they could grow up and be anything they wanted, even president (cue John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses”), and instead their jobs got shipped overseas or replaced with technology. They feel like they’ve been waiting in line for their turn, their shot, and instead immigrants are coming in and cutting in line to get their jobs.

So, what does this all have to do with sustainability? Two things:

  1. We know that climate change disproportionately impacts folks on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. There are a lot of ways this plays out, but the simplest one to wrap your head around (which isn’t really simple) is that weather disruptions impact crop yields. Fewer crops means higher prices. If you’re already struggling to make ends meet, you can’t afford more expensive food. So, the Yellow Vests and the Trump base who already feel stretched thin, who already feel screwed, are going to get even more stretched and screwed as we enter the full swing of climate change.
  2. Fighting climate change has long been seen as something that’s in the wheelhouse of the liberal elite. Though folks we call “Working Class Realists” in our consumer segmentation want greener products and more efficient houses for health and safety reasons, they haven’t connected the dots to how government policies and corporate action on sustainability will directly impact their lives.

2019 is the year to change that.

My observation at sustainability and energy efficiency conferences in the last half of 2018 is that there’s an urgency coming from corporate America that I haven’t seen before. I’ve been working on sustainability for nearly 15 years now and the shift is palpable. And I’m relieved to see it. But, Corporate America, it’s not enough to curb your carbon emissions. You have to connect the dots from what you’re doing to why it matters to people’s daily lives. That’s how you build brand value and sell more products. But it’s also how we get everyone – especially those who have the most to lose in a 2 degree world – in agreement that these actions are critical.

As we enter what’s going to feel like the Longest Presidential Season Ever, I caution politicians on this as well. Right now, climate is buried amidst the noise on immigration and terrorism. Yet, climate change will impact every single one of us, and it will impact the folks worried about immigration in ways that are so much deeper, more painful and permanent than immigration. Your talking points need to tell that story. We must take sustainability out of the realm of the Liberal Elite and make it a concern and a platform for the Everyman. And we can’t run around slapping gas taxes on people as a way to curb climate change. We must be more nuanced … we must offer carrots to go along with the sticks. We must reimagine programs and rebates so a family of four living on $35-40,000/year can see how fighting climate change helps them TODAY as well as tomorrow.

In 2019, connect these dots:

Corporations: do the right thing and tell emotionally compelling stories about why you’re doing it. Lay out your vision for the world. Talk about the Big Problems you’re working to overcome and the future you’re aiming to create for everyone. Engage your buyers in your vision and help them see the direct connection between buying your products and creating a better today and tomorrow.

Politicians and policymakers: reimagine programs so the folks who are hurting the most right now get the most help. Fix their houses so they’re healthy and efficient, make it possible/affordable for them to buy fuel-efficient cars and access renewable energy. Empower them to take action and gain control over the forces that could keep them in poverty and communicate that narrative. Help them see how climate change is extremely relevant to their lives and is a bigger challenge for them than all of the other stuff we’re talking about – and help them overcome it.

And, for good measure, re-read my “wish list for 2018” post from this time last year. It’s still relevant and directly related to what I’m saying here. And if you need help connecting the dots and creating a relevant narrative (it’s not as easy as it sounds), call me and we’ll figure it out. The time to shift and communicate is now.

News of the Week

The silver lining in Apple’s very bad iPhone news – Wired

Apple’s bad news that iPhone sales are slowing down may have a potential silver lining – and it involves sustainability. As consumers hold on to their phones for much longer nowadays, their actions are having positive effects on the environment. “Manufacturing is environmentally intense,” states the article, adding that the production of “each Apple device generates on average 90 pounds of carbon emissions.” If this becomes a trend, it gestures to the need for more sustainable business models to accommodate consumer interest in longer-lifecycle products.

Norway’s electric cars zip to new record: almost a third of all sales – Reuters

Norway has an ambitious plan of ending the sale of “fossil-fueled vehicles” by 2025 – and they are delivering on their goals. In 2018, almost a third of all new vehicles sold in Norway were purely electric. The country encourages their purchase by waiving most taxes and offering perks such as free parking and charging stations. The top-selling car in Norway in 2018 was the Nissan Leaf, followed by other popular electric models from BMW, Volkswagen and Tesla. This is great progress, but there is still work to be done: officials acknowledge that lack of access to private parking for charging cars at home is still a major obstacle for many consumers.

A Period of Change

Once upon a time, feminine hygiene was a topic simply not mentioned in polite society – and options were limited to an aisle of single-use products. Now, times are changing, and the options have grown. What once seemed like a segment of the consumer packaged goods industry impervious to change is now undergoing profound transformation. New, reusable choices are flooding the market – choices that are better for the environment and, in most cases, work better too. Fifty-nine percent of women have used or considered using them – what will that do to your business?

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

1 Comment

  1. pamela alabaster

    Thank you Suzanne for this personal account of the challenges of implementing climate change mitigation strategies.

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