Green Agenda: Convert Awareness to Action

As the economic stimulus plan takes shape in Washington, some clear potential winners are energy efficiency programs, renewable energy sectors such as wind, solar and biofuels and alternative fuel and electric vehicles.

Driving these proposed investments is a keen understanding of the benefits of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and petroleum—all of which emit the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change—as well as reducing our dependency on foreign oil in the transportation sector.

If you work in communications, chances are that you will have a need to address environmental and energy issues in the days ahead. If you work for a corporation, you may have “green” products or services to market and promote, or you may need to develop messaging about your organization’s sustainability program. Today, virtually every organization has to address energy efficiency and track environmental regulation and legislation.
For communications professionals, developing effective programs for consumers and businesses requires both a keen understanding of the intended audiences and behavior-change strategies that remove barriers to taking action, increase incentives and ultimately persuade them to take action. Studying public opinion polls and emerging research in behavioral change and social marketing, and learning from best practices and applying proven communication techniques is the best road map for success in this new era of green communications.

Now is the time to build on the momentum for eco-friendly products, services and policies and to enroll Americans in doing their part to protect the environment. Fortunately, we can learn from the successes taking place across the country, as the two examples below illustrate:

â–¶ RecycleBank, a New York-based company, has created an innovative program that is helping 100 communities in 15 states increase public participation in local recycling programs. Residents in such communities as Wilmington, Hartford and Sioux Falls are offered reward “points” from local and national merchants in proportion to the weight of their weekly household recyclable trash.

The points are then redeemed for discounts, groceries, gift cards, products and entertainment with the merchants, providing a triple “win” situation. Residents save money on things like movies, pizzas and clothing or can donate the points to local schools. Nearly half of the points redeemed are in support of local businesses. And, the participating communities save on landfill space while also invigorating local economic development from the reward redemptions.

Lisa Pomerantz, director of communications for RecycleBank, says the key is to offer something for everyone. She advises PR people to keep the message as simple as possible and to offer all the tools and materials needed to communicate effectively with local officials, merchants, media and residents.

â–¶ Austin Energy, the nation’s ninth-largest community-owned electric utility, has developed the GreenChoice renewable energy program to get businesses and residents to help the community increase its percentage of electricity generated from clean energy sources such as wind.

With the GreenChoice program, Austin Energy offers businesses and consumers a long-term fixed rate “green” fuel charge versus the fuel charge for fossil fuels that most customers pay. Businesses, in particular, understood the value of locking in a fixed electric rate, even if it was slightly higher in the first years. As it has turned out, the majority of GreenChoice subscribers now actually pay less for their electricity than non-subscribers. More than 9,300 residents and 500 businesses are participating, making it the most successful program of its kind in the nation.

Austin Energy now produces 12% of its total electricity from renewable energy. Ed Clark, director of communications for Austin Energy, attributes their success to creating a program that offers customers value and for creating a recognition program for participating businesses. When businesses sign up at higher levels, Austin Energy promotes their participation with press releases and newspaper, billboard and even TV advertising.
“The visible ways we recognize GreenChoice business subscribers creates a competitive spirit that has led other businesses to sign up,” Clark says.

In both of these examples, consumers and businesses are motivated to participate in eco-friendly programs through incentives and smart marketing.

Beyond best practices, we can also look at behavioral change research. A survey released in January by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University reported that “conservation behaviors, however, are quite variable.”
The study found that 90% of Americans regularly turn off unneeded lights, yet only 20% say they always or often take public transportation, walk or bicycle instead of driving. Americans are primarily motivated to save energy if they can save money. But the study also reported that a significant number of Americans are motivated by reducing global warming, acting morally and feeling good about themselves.

Understanding Americans’ awareness, attitudes and behaviors on environmental issues will help guide communication professionals working on energy conservation campaigns, renewable energy programs, green product marketing and promoting environmental advocacy. Increasingly, our goals not only include raising public awareness, but also persuading consumers, businesses and policy makers to take actions that improve the environment.

While it may seem daunting in the midst of a severe recession to persuade consumers to pay higher prices for solar heat pumps, hybrid vehicles or even a lower-premium product such as a compact fluorescent lightbulb, it can be done. It takes incentives, smart marketing and communication programs based on research, proven strategies and new ideas. 

Frank J. Walter serves as a senior vice president at Environics Communications in Washington and leads the firm’s North American sustainability and clean energy practice. He can be reached at