Is Nice the New Black?

By Georgina Combes (13 Sept 2010)

At a recent lunchtime talk at Cape Town’s Democracy Centre, Dr Guy Midgley, Chief Director of the Climate Change and BioAdaptation Division at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, spoke about climate change and how we relate to it as scientists and non-scientists. One of his first slides was this quote from Tim Harford, aka The Undercover Economist:

Few humans are capable of making serious sacrifices for the unborn grandchildren of total strangers which is the basic selling point of voluntary action on climate change.

On this basis, the outlook is depressing. As Mr Harford positions it, the likelihood that anyone will voluntarily be nice and embrace sustainable behaviours is slim.

Dr Midgely, rightly so, challenged the Undercover Economist’s line on two accounts: for individuals (unlike the world’s richest companies) taking action on climate change doesn’t have to mean serious sacrifices; secondly, the impacts of climate change, especially in Africa, are more immediate and local, they aren’t just issues for strangers or those born in two generations’ time.

The challenge, though, of encouraging voluntary action is one of positioning. No one really wants to make sacrifices if they don’t have to. And most people do not want to change if things are working fine as they are.

However, people do have desires: many like to look good, have an easy life and not be singled out as different from their friends, contemporaries and role models. So, rather than being about sacrifice, shouldn’t we position sustainable actions as relevant, desirable and every-day? Rather than being something we can ignore, if we want take-up, then we need to make sustainable actions so much obviously better/ cooler/ easier/ cheaper/ more efficient (choose as appropriate for your target audience) than the old way of doing things.

Below is a WWF South Africa advert on the inside back cover of this month’s SA Elle magazine. WWF is right, “we can’t ignore climate change forever” but readers of Elle can easily ignore this advert. To the unaware, cars on a highway that is underwater will seem an unrealistic, overly dramatic and negative vision of the future. The ad doesn’t provide any information on what individuals can do. This is especially relevant to readers who are plied with information throughout the magazine on how to look good, get the best value for money, stay on trend and be fashionable.

In contrast, WWF’s Green Living web-pages deliver a positive, proactive message.

Another example of how green is positioned came earlier in the magazine in an article exploring why ‘Nice is the New Black and a Positive Attitude one of the Key Items of the season’. One of the writer’s examples of being nice was ‘being green’ – that “being green has become a necessary condition for being nice. A carbon neutral lifestyle to reduce our impact on the earth’s resources requires behaviour that is ethical, responsible, prudent and unselfish – words that are easily compatible with ‘nice’. Being eco-friendly is ultimately an expression of our sense of community and a way of demonstrating our compassion for one another.”

This is important. But ultimately ‘being nice’ isn’t the biggest driver for positive social and environmental change. For companies, as Incite knows, the drivers of sustainability are more about being savvy, competitive and successful than about being nice. While Corporate Social Investment is important and good thing to do, it is unlikely to build truly sustainable societies.

When it comes to individuals, families and communities choosing more sustainable actions, are they really driven by being nice and compassionate, or are they motivated by keeping up with their neighbours, positive feedback and a sense of what’s in it for them? If it’s the latter then maybe that’s how we should be positioning the marketing of sustainable behaviours.

Sustainability is the new black, but we need to brand it better so it’s meaningful and relevant to everyone – especially the non-scientists.

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