Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sustainability Week: Learning How to Reach Out Beyond the Choir

This past week was Sustainability Week at the university where I work, which is a regular event I've been involved in putting on for three semesters now, and I am always left wondering what (if any) impact it had on the audiences we tried to reach.

With any environmental outreach efforts, you're always running the risk of only singing to the choir. That is, only reaching the folks who are already concerned enough to show up on their own.  As a card-carrying member of that choir, I admit that I love being sung to and you don't need free food to entice me to show up to a talk about population growth, sustainability & food, or reusing bikes to empower developing communities. (All real talks I went to this week).

Me, looking ridiculous in the homecoming parade for the benefit
of Mother Earth. Photo by Darrell Hoemann, News Gazette
But convincing the apathetic, the skeptics, and the oblivious to care just a little and show up is where the real challenge lies. I overheard more than one conversation this week between students, describing how they were only attending something because their teacher offered extra credit for going to that particular event. I suppose it's better than nothing, but it left me wondering if they were even paying attention during the talk, because I could see lots of phones and laptops out, just browsing online throughout the talk.

And we didn't only try to reach people through lecture-style events. We had an environmental expo with booths sharing free giveaways and information at one of the busiest dining halls for three hours around lunch time, and we had a fleet of decorated bicycles in the homecoming parade last night just for the sake of raising awareness. And while I know these other awareness-raising events didn't reach everyone we passed or who passed us, I do think they were worth the effort, and next year we'll do them even better to have an even greater impact.

A few take-aways from the week, as advice for planning sustainability events in a community:
  1. Good advertising is absolutely key, and should be done with every medium you've got. Flyers, chalk on sidewalks, facebook, etc. All of it. There needs to be someone in the planning group whose only responsibility is advertising, and they need a small team to help them execute the plans they develop.
  2. Be very clear on who your intended audience is for each event. It's very possible that each event will be slightly different in terms of who you're trying to reach, and knowing who that target audience is should inform how and where the event is advertised.
  3. Use each event to advertise for the other events, and for the week as a whole. Brand all of them as part of your Sustainability Week. You shouldn't have been able to walk through that expo without immediately realizing why we were having it, and also learning about 10 other things later in the week that you might want to attend. Instead, we had the expo on Thursday, after most of the week had already passed, and so many students came up to us asking "what is this?" For every one student that came up to ask that, 25 probably walked by completely unaware and thus untouched by our efforts.  It shouldn't have been possible to walk through those doors and know exactly what was going on.
  4. Get more people involved in planning from the start. Much of the weight of the week fell on a small handful of people's shoulders, so it's totally understandable that advertising and execution of certain events was a little low. If each event has a unique owner, that person can focus whole-heartedly on making it as awesome as possible. And if you're only asking each person to only do one thing, you'll have a much better chance of convincing them to sign up for the job. Don't be shy, invite everyone to the table, and then welcome their input and help.
  5. Get outside of the sustainability community while planning your events and partner up with other groups as a way to get beyond the choir. Most events had some obvious tie-ins to other areas of expertise, and we could have done a better job of taking advantage of existing communities that might have been interested in that topic, even if they had little interest in sustainability, per se.
  6. Find out who is coming to your events. Always have a sign-up sheet, and get contact info so you can inform attendees about your next event. Ask them how they heard about the event so you can get a sense of what advertising efforts are working and which ones aren't worth your time. Having a firm head count from each event can also be informative to compare interest in different topics, or to measure the success of different advertising efforts.
  7. Get more teachers to offer extra credit to their students for coming to your events. ;)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Opportunistic Bride

I'm getting married next summer, and it has occurred to me more than a few times that 'green weddings' are so much easier said than done.

A quick google search will introduce you to plenty of blogs, consultants, and planners with advice and services to help couples plan a 'green wedding' (Rent a hybrid limo! Choose a LEED certified venue! Ask your caterer to use organic ingredients!) but the fact is that any big event, no matter the purpose, is inevitably going to be a source of waste, carbon, and consumption.

Photo from the hilarious Practical Ryan Gosling.
I know that our wedding will be no exception. We've got a huge guest list, (that's what happens when you marry into an Irish Catholic family) from all over the country (that's what happens when you come from a family of nomads).

But it doesn't mean we're not trying wherever the effort seems worthwhile. We chose a location near the majority of our guests so that as few people as possible are traveling. The reception and ceremony are both on-site so there isn't any travel required between the two.  We're doing paperless invitations for most guests, and online RSVPs for all.  And so on and so forth.

I realized recently, though, that something I've been doing just to save my sanity is also helping to make our wedding greener: I am an Opportunistic Bride.

Instead of having an exact vision of what precise colors, flowers, decorations, etc. our wedding must have, I've been letting happenstance and luck determine our exact decor. Found an awesome container at a thrift store or in a dumpster? Dust it off and call it a flower vase! Some random pieces of ribbon that my aunt saved from someone else's wedding? They're perfect!

It doesn't mean that I take every old thing I find and plan on using it in the wedding. I'm being quite selective, in fact.  It just means that I don't need to hunt for very specific or perfectly matching items.

Instead, I keep an eye out for items matching the general look and feel that I hope to accomplish. I always have a few paint chips in my purse so that I can check to see if my opportunistic discoveries fit the general palette I'm going for.  I've given myself permission to match a broad color range instead of an exact hue, and to not need consistency or symmetry anywhere in our decor.

I'll still have to buy some things new, no doubt, but being open and flexible to reuse whatever objects I can find has allowed me to save a lot of used items from the landfill, not to mention saving my budget and my sanity as a bride.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Friday, January 20, 2012

NIMBY vs. Renewables

Just found an interesting quote that speaks nicely to the post I wrote yesterday about local opposition to solar farms:
A recent poll said 63 percent of Americans support renewable energy investment…in theory. But in practice, Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition to new energy infrastructure prevents about 45 percent of renewable energy proposals from being built across the country, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
                                                      -Lee Patrick Sullivan, Energy Now.