Is the green movement dead? (Did it ever exist?)

At SXSW Eco, editors and experts debate how environmentally-friendly messaging can reach the mainstream without the "green" baggage that turns so many people off.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

AUSTIN, Texas -- Is the green movement dead?

Did it ever really exist in the first place?

Experts debated this and other topics during a panel discussion here at the inaugural SXSW Eco conference, in which the question of messaging for the environmental community was front and center.

FastCompany Co.Exist editor Morgan Clendaniel, Iron Way Films founder Kelly Cox, MTV Networks vice president Kelleigh Dulany and OnEarth Magazine editor Ben Jervey sat down to discuss how a passionate minority can energize an apathetic majority -- and came to the conclusion that perhaps the "green movement" was never really one at all, at least in the sense of broadly appealing to people.

"I don't think the movement exists," Cox said. "I've been doing this for 10 years and I haven't really seen it expand beyond our values, our way. I've seen companies attach themselves to it," she said, but it's not reaching the mainstream in its current format.

"We have to make it relevant to people," she said, by segmenting and narrowing down the message's focus so that it resonates with different people on different terms. "There are so many opportunities missed by NGOs in connecting with real people" because they don't think like businesses that sell products.

Use whatever name you'd like, but the way to get traction is to really think about your customer base: who they are, where they live, what they consume, how they think.

"The world is going to hell in a handbasket any way you look," Cox said. "Nobody needs to be told that anything else is wrong."

There's a need to focus on innovative solutions, not dwell on intangible problems. It's a bit like how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs talk about technology in the context of everyday human life.

"Get rid of the language," she said.

For Cox, that meant a campaign for Disney called 'I Imagine My Planet' that played up imagination in the context of eco-friendly solutions, omitting the hard numbers and gloom-and-doom peddled by thought leaders like Al Gore.

For Dulaney, that means appealing to the lowest common denominator among Comedy Central and Spike TV viewers: the need to look good in front of friends. "If we're smarter, does that get us laid?" she asked with a laugh.

The reality is that we're all selfish, Dulaney said. (Or as Jervey asked: "How do we appeal to selfish self-interests?") Viewers don't care about the big issues, just how it impacts them. For Comedy Central and Spike TV, that's tapping into the mindset of the Millennial generation, Dulaney said.

"They see world as a positive place and they consider themselves activists," she said. "At the end of the day what's great is trying to harness that civic activism and that belief that they have the power to change the future and be the game-changers."

And for those who don't care, appeal to basic peer pressure: "Don't be a douche," she said of the message delivered by Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity to attendees to clean up their trash on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Clendaniel said green movement -- or, if it doesn't really exist, whatever you'd like to call it -- has too long been preaching to the choir.

"We're all relatively rich white people from urban centers," he said. "What we've been doing for the last 10 years is just talking about ourselves."

(Or as he explained later: "There are 300 million people in this country and 99% of them aren't traveling the country looking for sustainable food options.")

Cox agreed, saying she focuses her conservation messaging on saving tangible natural resources like oysters and maple syrup, rather than rainforests and other abstract-to-most concepts.

"We're still not moving beyond that choir," she said.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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