The Hard Problem of Sustainability – Keeping Things Simple

Thomas Kolster

Maria, Thomas and Simon

Today I watched this presentation from my good friend Thomas Kolster, author of the book Goodvertising and a global advocate for the positive use of marketing in sustainability.

It’s a great master class in the way in which marketeers really need to focus on keeping their messages about sustainability simple, emotionally engaging, visual and fun.

One of Thomas’ key themes throughout his talk is the fact that people nowadays are reporting a higher degree of perceived “complexity” in their lives compared with fifteen years ago. There is therefore an opportunity for brands to develop sustainable solutions which contribute to simplifying people’s lives, and doing good at the same time.

What I would like to do is complement and add to Thomas’ talk first by referencing this great quote from Fritjof Capra:


Credit: Bioneers

What I think it is useful to do is to understand what people mean by “complex”. This word can mean things like hassles, complications, problems, difficult things, but of course nature is replete with complex structures without which we would have no life, no resilience, no creativity, no emergent structures, no evolution.

What Fritjof is drawing out attention to is the need to understand problems and issues from a systemic point of view. So sustainability practitioners themselves really need to develop and commit themselves to understanding the systems view of life at a very profound level.

This will then develop the inspiration to develop a new generation of stories and narratives which have the ability to convey a message simply while losing none of the complexity, since what is a story but a narrative which helps us to understand the complex relationships between its players?

Another article I really see completing Thomas’ presentation is the excellent analysis from George Lakoff on just why the seemingly mindless messages from Donald Trump are winning over huge swathes of the American electorate. One particular section is of direct relevance here, the distinction between direct causation and systemic causation:

Direct causation is dealing with a problem via direct action. Systemic causation recognizes that many problems arise from the system they are in and must be dealt with via systemic causation. Systemic causation has four versions: A chain of direct causes. Interacting direct causes (or chains of direct causes). Feedback loops. And probabilistic causes. Systemic causation in global warming explains why global warming over the Pacific can produce huge snowstorms in Washington DC: masses of highly energized water molecules evaporate over the Pacific, blow to the Northeast and over the North Pole and come down in winter over the East coast and parts of the Midwest as masses of snow. Systemic causation has chains of direct causes, interacting causes, feedback loops, and probabilistic causes — often combined.

Many of Trump’s policy proposals are framed in terms of direct causation.

Immigrants are flooding in from Mexico — build a wall to stop them. For all the immigrants who have entered illegally, just deport them — even if there are 11 million of them working throughout the economy and living throughout the country. The cure for gun violence is to have a gun ready to directly shoot the shooter. To stop jobs from going to Asia where labor costs are lower and cheaper goods flood the market here, the solution is direct: put a huge tariff on those goods so they are more expensive than goods made here. To save money on pharmaceuticals, have the largest consumer — the government — take bids for the lowest prices. If Isis is making money on Iraqi oil, send US troops to Iraq to take control of the oil. Threaten Isis leaders by assassinating their family members (even if this is a war crime). To get information from terrorist suspects, use water-boarding, or even worse torture methods. If a few terrorists might be coming with Muslim refugees, just stop allowing all Muslims into the country. All this makes sense to direct causation thinkers, but not those who see the immense difficulties and dire consequences of such actions due to the complexities of systemic causation.
Source: Why Trump?

All throughout his talk Thomas gives some really excellent examples of strong and effective sustainability messaging.

Screen shot 2016-03-06 at 16.30.49

Credit: SEDEX 16

It is certainly important to first understand your own message and then think about how it can be simplified in order that it’s meaning be understood, absorbed and accepted.But campaigns do not exist in vacuums, and messages which come from a place of authenticity have to compete with messages which are disreputable, dishonest and corrupt.

We have to master the art of learning first how to recognise and then frame and communicate systemic issues in a manner which are also able to combat other messages which are simplistic and dishonest and which utilise narratives appealing to direct causation. This is the hard problem of sustainability and I really applaud Thomas’ dedication to helping brands around the world hone and fine tune their messaging so the real truth of their purpose does not get lost in the noise of politics, competition and marketing which only values growth and profit above all else.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s