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Sustainability Myths and Selfishness: Insights into Better Economic Action

You may have heard the phrase:

“In order to be selfless, you have to be selfish.”

While there are different ways to phrase the sentiment, they basically all point to the fact that without self-fulfillment, without caring for and loving yourself, doing so for others is not only unreasonable…

…it’s unsustainable.

It may sound contrived or lofty at first, but when you think about it, it’s actually very practical and relates to why so many of us, no matter how good our intent, succumb to inaction.

So what does that have to do with this article? You’ll see by the end.

It begins with the inaction part.

Not too long ago we tuned into a Webinar titled “Dispelling Myths on Sustainability and People“ organized by the Sustainable Lifestyle and Education Programme over at the One Planet Network.

In it, the host, Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra, asked a panel of professionals what they’ve discovered to be MYTHS regarding the motivation in people, or lack there of, to seek a more sustainable lifestyle. After 20 years of trying to get people to change their decisions and close the value-action gap, Solitaire is rightfully "a little bit pissed off."

Google revealed that searches of questions regarding how to live a sustainable life, showed an increase of 4550%.

So Futerra asked people whether they’d be willing to make the same lifestyle changes for climate change as they did for Covid-19.

80% said they would.

Would those changes improve their quality of life or worsen it?

51% said they thought it would improve their quality of life. 13% said it would worsen, 37% said it wouldn’t make any difference.

She concluded that the number one reason we should make these changes is because it’s good for us.

“We will be healthier and happier if we take those actions.”

Watch the discussion here OR check out the myths and main points below.

Here’s the verdict (summarized):

Ellie Moss

Consultant, Founder of Moss and Mollusk

1. If people know, they’ll change.

The research doesn’t support that awareness leads to action. Main reason: convenience in current consumption, lack of knowledge or opportunity to use alternatives.

What works: Awareness campaigns connected with actionable steps. Easy to follow prompts where decision moment occurs.

2. Guilt and fear change behavior.

Guilt works a little better than fear, but both lead more to anxiety and hopelessness.

What works: emotions like pride, optimism, hope, love. Humor and modern irony. Positive social norms.

3. People will change their habits for the greater good.

Research shows that people act when problems feel personally relevant and near-term. Evolutionary traits such as self-interest is what drives behavior. Disregarding problems that are psychologically distant.

What works: Local, customized campaigns. Emphasis on personal benefits, human connection, immediacy and tangible impacts.

4. One size fits all.

Gender, age, education level, political identity, extroverted or introverted, etc. They all play a big part in how people react.

What works: Design campaigns with a specific group in mind. Identify life transitions that align with sustainable behaviors, ex: retirees wishing to save money, new parents thinking about child’s health.

5. The massive scale of the problem will compel change.

Feeling overwhelmed by big numbers can make people tune out.

What works: positive social norms, showing the significance of individual actions.

Vimlendu Jha

Founder of Sweccha

1. PowerPoints are sustainable. (Refer to his number 8).

2. Lockdown is good for our environment.

People suggest that regular lockdowns could be a permanent tool for cleaning the environment. It’s not. Lockdown wasn’t voluntary, it was a forced surrender of our formal lifestyle. Repair must be sustainable, and not a knee-jerk. The rivers that cleared up during lockdown become polluted again.

3. Bicycles are universally sustainable.

They need proper infrastructure. People in third world and developing countries cannot all afford bicycles and insurance anyway, and the amount of deaths caused by bicycle accidents is staggering (48% of road deaths in India are cyclists and pedestrians, more than Corona or cancer.)

4. Fashion is sustainable.

5. Organic food is sustainable.

IF you’re eating organic food that comes from the other side of the planet, it’s not sustainable. Backyard food, EVEN if they’re grown from hybrid seeds, is sustainable.

6. Electric cars.

Private transportation can’t be a sustainable form of transportation, EVER. Investment in public transport is a must. Plus, if the electricity in your city is generated by thermal power plants, then it’s also powering your electric car. Plus, they’re not affordable. Discussion around equity and justice is extremely important.

7. People who are knowledgable about sustainability jargon.

The people of the most sustainable communities in the world have never read a book or watched a documentary, or consumed something that was “certified” green.

8. Webinars.

They are a feasible solution right now, but laptops, Netflix, the current methods of information storage, etc., consume loads of energy, and people in third-world countries are left behind the from the debate.

“Sustainability is not just about beautiful butterflies and beautiful trees. Sustainability is not about people who can afford it. Sustainability is about the last person standing in line hungry who also deserves to eat. And food and livelihood is as important.”

Carlos Trujillo

Associate professor at the Universidad de los Andes

1. Younger people are more sustainable than older people.

Earth’s population will continue to become more urban. The younger population under 35 may SEEM capable of a sustainable lifestyle (more education, better informed, more concerned, earn more money, connected by social media, fewer children and later in life). But the data shows they are NOT.

2. They are focused.

They may have the will but not the focus. Younger people have more egocentric values, less consumer wisdom, and lower perceived influence in the world.

Two ways to activate them would be to:

  • Use their connectedness and education to promote more.

  • Empower them as decision makers outside their reference groups.

Paula Miquelis

Co-founder of Green is the New Black

Lessons from her journey, for new green initiatives.

A. Sustainability is a journey which starts from within and never ends.

  1. Pay attention to details when organizing events and serving guests and speakers. Don’t use plastic cups or bottles, serve vegetarian food, up-cycle decorations and signs, etc.

  2. Be picky about your partners. Be sure their principles align with yours across their platform and services.

  3. Go carbon neutral. Get certified.

  4. Create a post event sustainability report.

  5. Adapt to your market and externalities.

  6. Give the participants the role of co-creators.

  7. Remember that no-one is perfect. Baby steps are fine.

B. Build impactful communities using pop culture codes & stories.

  1. Reach conscious consumers through use of mainstream, accessible, relatable campaigns.

  2. Be thought provoking while being inclusive through outreach and collaboration.

  3. Cause micro revolutions by creating change or solving local issues. Ex: getting department stores to change air conditioner settings.

The Webinar was closed with 4 questions proposed by the listeners.

1. Will change come from top-down systemic changes or bottom up individual changes?

Ellie: The ability to make changes is not possible until you are given the tools to create it, meaning that there may need to be some form of systemic change. Sustainable packaging is out of the individuals control at mainstream grocery stores, so the higher ups need to give us the means to move forward.

Vim: It’s not one or the other, but rather a bit of both. People demand change and the people in power will deliver, so simultaneous change must occur. Individuals have the power to choose certain things so there is much more control of consumption than individuals realize.

Carlos: Companies follow markets so when the people change, this will force the higher ups to follow the trends. Consumption movements have the power to put the pressure on companies by demanding the change

Paula: Both, there is no right answer but rather creating better ideas is the best possible outcome. The guilt is put onto the consumers, leading to the hopelessness factor so change never happens. So companies must ignite the change flame. How do you pursue a sustainable lifestyle when it is rather difficult to challenge leaders just through the power of your wallet? How can you live sustainably when all you have is your purchases to raise your voice with (if voting is not possible).

Vim: If you aren’t in a democratic state, there are still many things you can do: the countries that look like they aren’t democratic, sustainability may be a challenge, but democratic worlds are not sustainable in themselves. Sustainability is oftentimes ignored because of human rights, wars and other things that may take precedence over sustainability. The biggest pollutant in the world is these so-called democratic societies that are so extremely industrialized and create so much pollution that it is unbearable in some cases. Democratic values are praised but they should be shunned for some of the things that happen there.

2. What do you think of the internalization of externalities, ie., the polluter pays? Should we be taking the cost of sustainability and putting it towards products? Should products cost more because of this? Would younger generations like that?

Carlos: The thing is, some companies have tried to increase prices and this brings a bit of fright to these companies. I do believe that young people would be more open to that because they understand that things will be different in the future and that things should be valued differently than they were in the past, due to the nature of everlasting change to the producer, consumer, and the environment.

3. Are these myths global? Do they apply to humanity or to different parts of the world? What does “We’re all different and we need to approach everything in different ways,” mean?

Ellie: The research that informed the myths was based on global research that came from at least 50 countries, most likely more. That being said, cultures are different as well as the people. Normalities are common among groups but that makes us unique because those are not universal. You need to ensure that you are doing campaigns that are customized, but appeal to the local culture. Your campaign must relate to the given area or else people will not gravitate towards what you have to say. Being specific is the best thing you can do, because it doesn’t leave room for people to question what you are doing. People who personify the environment are moved towards change and are much more likely to act upon how they feel as opposed to those who don’t personify the environment.

4. What impact has COVID had on the movement that you are a part of? Do you think that it has taken away viewership or enhanced it?

Paula: Of course we have a decrease in revenue from events, but here has been a growing demand for creating content, creating a marketplace and consumer choices. Brands approach us for more now. Covid has been positive for climate movements. There are many things in our pipeline now that prove that the world is more and more ready for sustainability, advocacy and education.


And there you go. The webinar in a nutshell.

So what does this have to do with being selfish?

My biggest takeaway from the presentations and discussion was this:

Almost everyone is thinking of others, while at the same time acting in their own interest.

The thing is we’re either aware of our egocentric habits and in denial, or we sincerely don’t realize them.

Consumers react to what is convenient for them. Positivity, humor, personal relevancy, immediacy and a sense of being involved are what drive action from the individual. Only a handful ever sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

From the corporations’ point of view, adjusting to the market serves themselves. NO-ONE is sacrificing their company for the greater good, but they’ll grow their company for it.

So how will it all go down?

As globalization and capitalism continue to grow and impact life choices, the symbiosis between the top and the bottom, the enterprises and the egos, the institutions and the individuals, will continue to grow off of personal benefit.

It will be an unexpected tag team between David and Goliath.

And since there are never two opposing needs that are in conflict, only two different needs for self preservation and acceptance that must be communicated and balanced, the shift towards fulfilling the greater good will happen from you fulfilling your natural survival trait of caring for yourself, THROUGH means of caring for others.

Remember, "sell the benefit, not the need."

In other words, we will learn to care for ourselves BY caring for others.

And if caring for others is selfish, go ahead and be selfish already.



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