When it comes to sustainability, the biggest challenge is not finding a new approach, it’s getting people to make the change. You need people to adapt to a new way of doing things, so you need a strategy. Here is how you get people excited about sustainability and eager to participate in your program.

Lead with Education

Far fewer people than you might expect actually understand what’s happening with the climate. They don’t get the difference between weather and climate. They don’t understand the enormous impacts of warming sea water. And they don’t understand that nothing disappears – every polluting thing we’ve ever created is still right here with us, where we breath it in and drink it every day.

Visuals can be very helpful. Show images of how many disposable items head from your health system or municipality to the landfill. Create graphics to show the impact of warming seas and melting glaciers. Help people understand – and never shame them for not already knowing.

A helpful hint is to have someone who is unfamiliar with your project look over your educational materials. You want to discover anything that is unclear or confusing before you launch because, if anything is unclear, people will give up. In my personal experience alone, I can think of numerous local recycling programs where the waste disposal company presented diagrams of what could be recycled and what couldn’t be. Except they never included items we actually purchased – like milk cartons. The result was confusion, so we just threw anything we were unsure of into the recycling – and had strong doubts about the value of the entire endeavor.

Education is never a one-off. It is ongoing as new people get involved who need to understand the basics, while others become ready for more complex information. It takes multiple repetitions for a person to take in a new message. So be patient and keep presenting why you’re making the proposed changes and what, specifically, you want people to do differently. Some people may need to hear about your sustainability changes dozens of times before they open up to it. That’s okay – be patient.

It also helps to collect people’s questions and make sure the answers are shared with everyone.

Expect an Emotional Response

You will get a lot of support from the people already worried about the climate crisis. They will be enthusiastic and want to dive right in. Others, though, will have a different take on sustainability. They may feel it’s politically motivated and be suspicious of your motives. Or they may agree with you in theory but feel it’s futile to even try to change.

If you encounter these responses, don’t give up. It doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. All it means is that you need additional messaging that addresses these concerns. If people worry you are being political, see if a shift in language makes a difference. For instance, instead of always talking about the climate, talk specifically about how much garbage your organization or your municipality generates each month. Explain the concerns about groundwater contamination and running out of landfill space. Make the issue clear and direct, with visuals that are hard to ignore.

If people feel hopeless, show the impact your program makes. Demonstrate how much less water your landscaping requires since switching to native plants. Show how much food your rooftop garden provides and how many families you were able to feed.

Keep Pressure on Leadership

Sustainability plans do not move forward if the leadership is not behind them. This may mean striking a balance between pushing your leadership to the edge of their comfort level but not going farther than they support. If you push them too far, they won’t be there to back you up if you encounter any obstacles. Best to create a long-term plan and get them onboard for each new stage. Remember, you need the support of your leadership to help you sell the plan to everyone else.

Include leadership when you celebrate the milestones of your success. And develop a plan for managers to talk with their team and keep them – gently – accountable.

You can get people excited about sustainability.

Patience and a long game are your best friends when it comes to implementing a new sustainability program. Make your program simple and clear. Educate people about what you are asking them to do and why. And get your leadership out there encouraging everyone to come on board. That’s how you get people excited about sustainability.

Photo by Joe Caione on Unsplash.