How to Sell the Environment: Final Project


1_Cover_How to Sell the Environment

The original pitch for this project was “How to Build the Ultimate Environmentalist,” where methods of making impact would be explored from the ground up. I considered everything from rhetoric to body language to business tactics.

That pitch was in the right direction, but I soon learned that there’s an endless amount of ideas that can apply to such a broad spectrum. I could have spent years in libraries reading about these concepts while barely scratching the surface.

2_Endless Ideas

To create a more focused, digestible research project I decided to hone in the pitch and lead with the following thesis:

3_Mission Page

This focus still had the potential to include thousands of ideas, but was specific enough to create a path of dialogue that could be delivered in a 15 minute talk or 15 page treatment.

The research arm of the project had a final tally of:

  • 3 interviews
  • 2 email conversations with TED speakers
  • 30 TED talks watched
  • 15-20 articles read

3a_Who Done it

In the end I had about three dozen major concepts to share. Based on interviews and favorite TED talks I took the most powerful thoughts and pulled quotes to build sharable through-lines.

Here was one of the simple ideas relating to branding, marketing and entertainment:

4_Manipulation 1

Seems reasonable, right?

Well it turns out that’s actually the definition for a very dirty word: manipulation.

5_Manipulation 2

That brings us to the first thing to remember when reading this presentation; words like “marketing,” “consumers,” and “target audience” all feel dirty when applied to a just cause like environmentalism, but can hold great merit when approached with an open mind. We certainly don’t want to manipulate people. Instead we want to remember that if we feed from the tactics of selling products we can digest what makes a brand, person or thought spread and make impact.

6_Anything Can Applu Digest

This is the second and final thing to remember when reading the presentation. There’s an endless trove of theory out there that can apply to what we do. Take a look at how people speak, hold themselves, promote ideas and make impact. Then find what methods or tactics are most interesting to your work and digest them. If you think about new concepts in relation to your work they will become instinct and fuel into everything you do.

With that said, let’s dive into some big ideas.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.29.14 PM

The first concept comes from Rory Sutherland’s TED talk “Perspective is Everything.” In it he describes how we can take more psychological approaches to problems that would typically merit an engineering solution. His eye-opening and hysterical example of a Euro train can be watched at 6:20, but the whole talk is wonderfully enlightening:

The idea of changing perspectives on solutions could make huge differences in thinking about environmental causes.

For example: A donor decides to give a $10,000 anonymous donation to an environmental organization. This is a generous sum and will make a decent impact. However what if instead of just donating the $10,000, the donor had the company make a Facebook post that said “For every like on this post an anonymous donor agreed to give $1 to our organization up to $10,000.” In this circumstance the donor remains anonymous, the $10,000 will almost certainly be reached, and now 10,000 people out there feel like they made a direct contribution and acknowledge the organization. It’s a simple way of repurposing a solution to make a  more widespread impact.

Another perspective comes from TED speaker Malcolm Gladwell, who describes how looking to make a perfect product is often a failed ideology. This is one of my favorite talks of all time.

This is important for environmentalism because we often try to take a single idea and sell it to everyone at once. Sometimes this works; just look at the 100 million views on the worldwide sensation Kony 2012. However there are many times when we should be looking to share issues and work with more specific groups instead. By reaching certain “tribes” we are able to make a more targeted, powerful impact that can disseminate to others.

For example, how do we expect to create consensus on global warming if we package the issues in the same ways for a conservative midwest farmer and liberal city dweller? We need to reframe the ways of approaching these issues and stop looking for the perfect spaghetti sauce.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.29.14 PM

The concept is TED speaker and author Joseph Pine’s thoughts on how marketing is not about the product, but about the experience.

7_Experience is the Marketing

Pine’s main example is Starbucks; they don’t go out and advertise their coffee. To try Starbucks you have to go and experience it yourself. With earthy green and brown interiors, comfy seating, personalized coffee cups and nice public bathrooms they have created an environment rather than a storefront.

As Pine said via email, “After experiences comes transformations, where we guide people to change — to achieve their aspirations — through a series of life-transforming experiences. In the end, that’s what your after, a transformation.”

This begs the question, how do we transform people?

For the answer let’s look at an interview quote from filmmaker Jake Oleson.

8_Tell Stories - Jake

This is the core of influencing people and approaching those that fiercely reject environmental causes.

The simple act of telling stories is the foundation of humanity. Every narrative, piece of history, personal revelation and call to action that changed the world came from a story. As Jake said the act of storytelling is the only true way to fuel the “empathy machine that is our minds.” Through stories we create empathy, and through empathy we influence people.

When considering storytelling it makes perfect sense why powerful rhetoricians and fiery conservative speakers can unite people against issues like climate change despite scientific consensus. We need to take our work and aim to tell stories that can connect to people, not just spread statistics.

When telling stories we must consider what pieces of the tale to tell:

9_Including in the Frame

This is especially relevant to documentary filmmaking and also needs to be considered for every film, blog post, conversation and piece of content. Don’t just spread facts and figures for the sake of being academic; use them as tools to tell a story.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.29.14 PM

The next line of thought begins with Seth Godin, a marketing legend and one of the best TED speakers I came across. His talk on “How to get your ideas spread” is a must-watch:

As Seth describes, we live in an age where our choices are rising and time is declining.

10_Choice and Time

We see this in environmentalism as thousands of important causes are shared and written about online. As life becomes busy and fast paced, how do you break through the muck of everything else to get something seen?

11. Is it Remarkable?

We need to approach every blog post, project, film, company and any other undertaking with the mindset of making it as remarkable as possible. It’s easy to disseminate facts and make simple conclusions. That’s why millions on the web already doing it. What you need is an approach that is unique, innovative and bold. Something your audience wants to go tell their friends about.

As documentarian Morgan Spurlock said in his TED talk “The Greatest TED Talk Ever Sold,” “When you train your company to be risk averse, then you’re training your company to be reward challenged.” Part of creating remarkable content is taking risks, and bold steps to put ideas out there in ways that will cut through troves of droning competition.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.29.14 PM

The final idea to consider when selling environmentalism is the golden rule of appealing to people.

12. Treat People Right

Everyone wants to feel like an important, unique individual contributing to the world. It’s at the core of our psychology.

This is perhaps the most important approach to remember when spreading environmental ideas. Reach out to individuals and acknowledge them for who they are, respect those that don’t agree with you and create content in the interest of the audience, not just to get your ideas heard.

Approaching a climate change denier with sleeves full of facts and a hot head is only going to create resentment. We need to find better ways to have conversations and tell stories that relate to groups.

13_Jeffrey Cohen

This three step approach from Jeffrey Cohen was given along with an example of climate change activists on the street. They will often begin a conversation with, “Hello, do you have a moment to talk about climate change?” This approach often fails time and time again because it goes straight to beginning the dialogue.

In Jeffrey’s approach, the interaction would go more like this:

  • “Hello sir, do you want to decrease your energy bill?”
  • “Here are some green solutions that will cut down costs and save energy.”
  • “Let’s talk about why we need to save energy.”

This approach is not aimed at the interests of the activist but rather the pedestrian. It’s personal, useful and informative and still plants the seeds to work into talking about an environmental issue.

If there’s one thing to take from Jeffrey’s insight it’s that we have to connect with people before pushing ideas on them. This applies to just about every idea mentioned here and should be the basis of making change.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.29.14 PM

To conclude, let’s take a look back at the concepts presented.


I believe that these ideas can be fueled into our work and help change the world.

They key is telling stories and connecting with the right audience. Never forget that you’re marketing for people, and try to create remarkable content that they’ll head home talking about.

15_Thank You! copy