Lessons from SXSW Eco #1: Changing How We Communicate

Fried food, two-stepping, honky tonk music, cowboy boots, and environmentalists? It might sound like an odd combo, but that’s South by Southwest Eco for you.

Last week, the EcoSalon team descended upon Austin, Texas to join in as a media partner in the first ever SXSW Eco, a three-day conference bringing together an “international audience of executive level decision makers from the public and private sectors, and thought leaders from academia.”

Just as SXSW has become a launching pad for new creative content and ideas fueled by a dynamic and diverse audience, the goal for SXSW Eco is to apply the same innovative approach to discussing the most pressing issues of our time. From food issues to the global population explosion to exploring what neuroscience can teach us about human behavior, the panelists and keynote speakers of the conference tackled these topics from a variety of perspectives, providing plenty of intellectual space to grow the conversation.

It’s one thing to gather a bunch of green-minded people into one space and get them to talk about pressing issues, and quite another to engage people outside of our circles on the same issues. “I am here to reach the people outside of the room, and I hope you do the same,” said Simran Sethi, journalist and Associate Professor University of Kansas. One of the main themes that stood out to us during the conference was how exactly we go about doing that. We all, at this point, acknowledge and understand that the green conversation has failed to become the green conversion. Going green has been a bust. But why? And where do we go from here? One popular sentiment floated into the Twitterverse from a panel on how green vocabulary has failed us was “We need a Rosetta Stone of green.”

So, is it changing how we talk about climate and the environment in our marketing efforts? Or are we so wired to consume more and deplete our natural resources, we must begin with psychology and science? Is dissonance and debate between greens – “skirmishes,” as the Nature Conservancy president Mark Tercek much prefers (bristling a bit under repeated criticism in the Q&A) – a healthy way to create space for forward progress, or a dangerously short-sighted distraction from the goals we share? Can we find ever find common ground that doesn’t politicize the issue of the environment and brings people from all points of the spectrum together to save ourselves?

The short answer is: yes. But it’s going to take work. And it’s going to take thinking creatively about how we talk about things like “green” and how we get people rallied around the issues. And it’s going to take words that don’t start with “g,” “s,” or “e.” (Green, sustainable, environmental.)

There’s hope, because when it comes to the environmental movement, we are talking about issues that affect everyone, which means that there’s plenty of room to improve and expand. We just have to rally around the right things, and become as sophisticated in our approach as Coca-Cola is at selling sugar water. As Roger-Mark De Souza, Vice President of Research Population Action International, said on a panel about pressing questions that won’t be on the Rio agenda in 2012, we have to make sure that we don’t have “missed opportunities.”

If we don’t want missed opportunities, we must start with communication. Facts and figures don’t work; relationships are everything. “We need to know our audience,” emphasized Brooke Buchanan, Director of Communications for Sustainability, Walmart. On the same panel, Jeff Nesbit, Executive Director of Climate Nexus, added “We have to learn other ways to communicate about these things so people actually care.” That means thinking creatively about how we frame environmental issues and how we communicate them to the larger public.

But it also means finding new ways to connect with people; focusing on the elements that transcend ideologies and political parties. One of those is food. In her presentation, Sethi presented a Wendell Berry quote:

Eaters, that is, must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.

As Sethi put it, “we cherish our connections to food… we do not cherish our connections to turning off our lightbulbs.”

Change, as it turns out, is about inspiring and moving people to do, not only better, but to connect, and the more we separate ourselves from others – be it through messages or actions or lexicons – the more we risk failure.

But there is hope. And in a post-Austin recharge, we’re donning our new cowboy boots and feeling inspired to do good, and we hope you do, too. Just how do we go about this? And what were points of consensus and criticism at the first ever SXSW Eco? Look for that and more in parts 2 and 3 this week from EIC Sara Ost and News Editor Andrea Newell.

We’ll have more on SXSW Eco throughout the week, so check back!

Images: Anna Brones

Main image: Chris Tackett, social media editor of Treehugger, Alex Steffen, environmental thought leader and keynote speaker, Sara Ost, EIC of EcoSalon, Andrea Newell, News Editor of EcoSalon, and others gather at the joint Treehugger/EcoSalon/Triple Pundit happy hour in Austin, Texas.

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.