How to Be an Eco-Advocate Without Coming Off as a Freaky Green

Coffee and conversation, eco-advocacy, saving the planet, the new pursuit“Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry most about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory”
~ Emily Post

Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve wanted to advocate for something but just didn’t know the best way to approach it?

If your wanna-be advocacy is anywhere near the Eco-Zone, you’re likely conscious as coming off as that Freaky Tree-hugger type. Or the Crazy Left-Wing Hippie. Or even the Armageddon Doomsday Greenie. Fear not though! This post will help you find angles and approaches for engaging people in sound, logical and appealing ways that benefit you, them and this little planet we all call home.

In a wonderful display of honesty and transparency, my friend Lynn (from the amazing blog, Upcycled Love) shared some of her trepidation when it came to eco-advocacy in the comments of the Leave No Trace: At Work Edition post. We went back and forth a few times talking about some strategies and tactics for approaching people and it occurred to me that others might be in the same situation.

My experience has always shown that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for many things in life, including being a champion for the environment. Whether it’s in business, parenting or navigating town politics, you have to more than one tool in the toolbox. It’s like Batman: He always seems to have the right tool for every situation, right? Same thing applies here.

Build Your Foundation

Before approaching the actual situation where you can flex some advocacy muscle, it’s important that you practice some of the cornerstones of a great conversation:

  • Be present. Focus on the person, not what’s going on around you. Look them in the eye and don’t let your body language tell them you’re thinking about what you’re going to do after this conversation.
  • Listen deeply. Listen and digest what the person is saying, don’t just passively hear the sounds coming out of their mouth.
  • Respect opinions. You might not agree with them, but respecting others’ opinions and positions goes a long way towards building your credibility as someone who is level-headed and fair.
  • Be knowledgeable. Know your stuff. Be well-read on a subject. Know the arguments and counter-arguments to the point you’re trying to make. Stick with the facts, not pumped-up hearsay.
Choose Your Approach

Again, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t get you far. Your approach should fit your personality. If it didn’t then you might come off as not being authentic or true. Your conviction and message might be seen as acting or over-zealous posturing. You should also consider the person you’re trying to reach — What is he or she like? What do you know about them (family, kids, where they live, what hobbies they have, etc.) that might give you insight on how to connect?

What follows are a few different approaches you might consider starting off with:

  • The Situational. Let’s say you see a friend/colleague throwing their plastic bottle in the trash instead of recycling it. Or perhaps they are buying a coffee and not using a re-usable coffee mug. Or even using reams of paper to copy that big presentation for the boss. You’re well-read enough to be able to say, “Hey, I was just reading a story about this massive island of plastic in the Pacific… isn’t that amazing? What do you think?” Or “Can you imagine that it takes 500 years for styro-foam to break down?” [Note: Link to a PowerPoint file]. Use a source other than yourself to broker the conversation and open that door with the person.
  • Appeal to Their Practicality. Everyone likes to save money, right? I’ve found that many things that are considered green or simple are also cost-effective. For instance, most coffee shops give you a discount for using a re-usable mug. Or spending a bit more up front for better material/quality (e.g., glass storage containers instead of cheap throw-away plastic ones) will save you money over the long run. If you can use neutral angles (angles that don’t come across as leaning too far one way or the other, like saving money) to start the conversation, folks are likely to be more receptive. You’re delivering the green/sustainable ‘package’ with a ‘wrapping paper’ that everyone will like.
  • Call Yourself Out Before They Do. This one works best with a bit of humor or comic relief thrown in for good measure. Around my office, I’m known as “Captain Planet”, not because I’m a Green Caped Crusader, but because I’m out to prove that sustainable business practices are good not only for the environment, but the company’s bottom line as well. Many times I will lead in a situation with something like, “We’re saving trees today by not making copies of this presentation…” People laugh, but at the end of the day, they get it. And with time, I’ve seen behavior change. People know that if I’m in a meeting with them I’m going to call something like that out.
  • Make an Emotional Connection With Their Heart. Underneath all that stuff many of us hide our true personalities behind, we are all human. And because of that, the core of our beings are built on love and compassion. Deep down inside, there is a part in all of us that cherishes the beauty and sacredness of Life because we ourselves come from that place. This fact gives you the ability to build a bridge between your own (com)passion for an issue or cause and someone’s innate goodness of heart and mind. So the next time someone utters, “They’re not going to develop that land because we need to protect a [insert species here]?!”, you can let your heart lead you in a discussion on the importance of biodiversity for all living creatures who call the Earth home.

These are only a few angles you might try. Each situation is unique so try different approaches. With time and practice it gets easier to do.

What’s your experience with advocacy (environmental or otherwise)? What approaches have helped you connect with people in rational ways that get results? Any big no-no’s in your book?

Be well,

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16 Responses to “How to Be an Eco-Advocate Without Coming Off as a Freaky Green”
  1. Jennifer says:

    I love the way you’ve laid out these strategies. When we’re passionate about something, I’m not sure we take the time to think about the most effective way to effect change; we just start mouthing off! But you’re right; we should. I’ve noticed that in my blog I often focus on my own green shortcomings and use them to think about why I’m acting this way and how I can improve. I don’t like people who tell me what to do, and I don’t like self-righteousness, so I try to avoid those paths — they were two things that turned me off environmentalism and vegetarianism in college.

    I’m not sure whether this would fall under ‘situational’ or ‘appeal to practicality,’ but one approach I’ve had some success with is identifying a trigger behind someone else’s behavior and giving him/her a small gift, like a purse-sized reusable bag for the well-intentioned person who always forgets hers in the car or a reusable travel mug to my husband who likes to get his tea at a cafe, to encourage better behavior. People love gifts and hate lectures.

  2. Bill Gerlach says:

    Jennifer — Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing! I LOVE your approach of peeling back the proverbial onion a bit to get at the triggers of someone’s behaviors and/or words. And to bring it home with a small act of kindness rocks! Thanks for adding to the list! Be well!

  3. SherryGreens says:

    “Deep down inside, there is a part in all of us that cherishes the beauty and sacredness of Life because we ourselves come from that place. This fact gives you the ability to build a bridge between your own (com)passion for an issue or cause and someone’s innate goodness of heart and mind.”

    I love that, it is so true. This post totally resonates with me, as it is something I often think about as well. I don’t want to be written off as a green crazy, because then nobody will listen to what I have to say! In my own life I try to lead by example. I don’t try to tell others what to do. For example, if I am going out for coffee with some coworkers, I bring my travel mug and mention that isn’t it cool that Starbucks gives me 10-cents off because I bring my own mug? I tell people the new choices I am making, in a casual way. Most people close to me now know that I have turned over this new environmental leaf, so when they see me doing something different (like folding up the paper wrapper from by bagel and putting into my purse to recycle at home) they quietly note the exact reason why I am doing it. I find it is hard to walk the line though… Many people in my life who are close to me follow my blog, so when I write about something controversial (like Alberta’s Oil Sands) I feel like I may be offending someone and turning them off to everything else I have to say. It is a fine line. However, I let my heart and conscience lead!!

  4. Lynn Fang says:

    Thanks so much for writing this! It’s definitely giving me a few ideas to work with. One thing I have done is bought my bf a reusable water bottle, and he immediately started using it. I want to feel confident enough to approach my greenie-ness somewhat like you do – to be able to say in front of my colleagues, ‘We didn’t throw away paper plates today because we used real ones.’ It seems like it should be so easy to say, but somehow it isn’t.

    I would also feel strange about always adding the eco perspective to a conversation. Of course, I would have to determine the most appropriate time to talk about it, but I admit that I have a fear that all I talk about is environmental issues. I’m a closeted eco-geek (at least in the workplace).

    Like Jennifer, I also don’t like people telling me what to do. So I have trouble finding the balance between raising awareness, piquing curiosity for environmental concerns, and downright telling people what to do or think. It’s partially my own lack of suave social charm, so eco issues present a particularly difficult case.

    Once, I got into a brief discussion with a coworker on vegetarianism. He hadn’t thought deeply about the issue. I explained I did it for environmental reasons, and pointed out flaws in his arguments/beliefs, and avoided mouthing off on my own views and things I had read. His general view was that he recycles and composts, so that has earned him ‘eco points’ to make up for eating meat. I said he doesn’t know they equally cancel each other out, to which he agreed. What did I accomplish there? I hope I made him think a slight more deeply about his choices…

    A doctor I saw once said, “We decided to only make you change into the lower patient garment, instead of both the upper and lower, and that has helped us reduce our waste by 1/2.” I thought that was a great way of highlighting her waste reduction efforts at her clinic. I suppose I see the difference between me and her is that she’s a doctor (automatic authority), who owns her own clinic (she’s the boss, so she sets the rules). I’m a young adult trying to figure out my career (no authority), who doesn’t own any entity of her own (I follow other people’s orders). Does this seem silly? I don’t think I’m alone to think these things…

  5. I’ve read in various places that people have a hard time making “green” changes simply for the sake of the planet. Sad, but the research suggests true. However, people are wiling to make changes (even fairly challenging ones) for themselves (which would include their pocketbook) or their family or children. This fits with your suggestions above.

    In my blog (focused on parenting) I’ve been attempting to find some support for why making green changes also can help your children. The wonderful thing that I’ve found by looking at green changes people can make (like kids riding bikes to school each morning) is that more often than not these behaviors are also good in the eyes psychology or parenting or health research.

    Have you read about Ernest Callenbach’s idea of the Green Triangle? Basically if you make a positive change, it almost always affects other areas of your life positively as well. Take the example of riding one’s bike to work. It is good for one’s financial situation, it’s good for one’s health (and even brain health I found out when I wrote on this topic) and good for the planet.

    When I’m feeling overwhelmed with climate change stuff, I think of this. It’s such a hopeful concept.

  6. Bill,

    This was an article that really needed to be written. The approaches you suggest are both skillful, respectful, and kind. As Jennifer mentions above, communicate well on green topics is also a challenge in blogging. It usually doesn’t work to charge ahead with a full head of stream. I’m so grateful you’ve raised this issue and have shared such pragmatic and effective strategies.

  7. Bill Gerlach says:

    SherryGreens — Thanks. Leading by example is often the best way of going about things — whether for the environment or anything else. Your Starbucks example — and the quick nod to saving some money — is exactly what I’m talking about. Practical, not preachy.

    I just read your post on the Alberta Oil Sands. I could feel your pain. National Geographic magazine had an amazing story on it a few years back. Devastating. A sad commentary on our insatiable thirst for energy at any cost. I’ll have to queue up that documentary though.

    Have you ever thought of joining up with the opposition movement?

  8. Bill Gerlach says:

    Thanks, Sandra. It is often a balance while you attempt to appeal to an individual’s uniqueness of person and situation. It takes practice — but it does get easier as you learn new ways of approaching people and situations and learn from past mistakes!

  9. Bill Gerlach says:

    Suzita — Thanks so much for stopping by and adding your perspective! I’ve never read the Green Triangle but as you’ve laid it out, it sounds very similar to the Corporate Social Responsibility model where what is good for business is also good for the environment and community. We use that a lot at work to help focus and drive our Green Team activities. But regardless of what you call it, what you point out is spot on — and so simple! There are so many things that are interconnected — convenience, health, environment, social vitality, etc. And is often the case if one goes out of balance (increases in convenience through consumption), the others are likely to decrease (healthy people and environment). The answers seem so simple. Be well!

  10. Thank you for such a well written article. I have difficulty talking about green topics. I feel like who am I to talk? With your tips I’ll be more comfortable and confident when I have a discussion.

  11. Bill Gerlach says:

    Thanks, Kat. Glad you can take away something from this. Let us know how you make out!

  12. Bill Gerlach says:

    Lynn, again your transparency and honesty are awesome. I wouldn’t dismiss your level of authority; sure, next to a medical doctor, you might think you’re a few notches down on the ladder, but think of that context: You’re in a doctor’s office. Outside of that context and in one that you’re well-studied in, the tables are turned. I think back to some of your posts where you deep dive on certain subjects (e.g., permaculture, organic foods, DIY) and to me, you clearly demonstrate a strong understanding. This understanding (and applied practice) gives you “authority”. But with “authority” comes responsibility. The best “authorities” are those people who are able to demonstrate it in a humble, modest kind of way. They don’t come off as arrogant, condescending know-it-alls. These people know when and how to exercise authority and when and how NOT to. Based on everything you’re saying, I know you get this. To me, it’s just a matter of practice. Start small, with topics you are most comfortable with. Continue to lead by example. All the pieces will eventually fall into place!!

  13. Bill, I was directed over from Sandra Lee’s latest post. I love your approach to this as I’ve often faced the same concerns about befriending the earth without sounding like a liberal freak (maybe sometimes I sound like that to my conservative friends). But when I talk about it from a “good steward” point of view, it can take a different tone. I especially like your “call yourself out before they do” approach. I’m good a ripping myself apart for laughs so that helps. :) Thanks for sharing.

  14. Bill Gerlach says:

    Bryan – Thanks for stopping by! Tone, perspective and a healthy dose of humility can be invaluable in these situations. By taking different approaches, you see what works and what doesn’t and figure out ways to tweak along the way. It’s all about how good the tools in your tool belt are. Be well!

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