By Tali Haller
Friday, November 7, 2014

On Wednesday, October 22nd, a group of six speakers from across the University of Washington came together to discuss sustainability, especially as it relates  to their personal research and projects, as part of the SustainableUW Festival. Comprised of three different UW schools (College of the Environment, Foster School of Business, and the School of Public Health), the panel focused on identifying and addressing the barriers to solving the largest issues currently affecting sustainability.   

The general consensus from the panel members focused on the idea of 1) making sustainability feasible and 2) creating emotional investment in sustainable practices. Panel member Jessica Levasseur, a second year Environmental Health MS student in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences within the School of Public Health, stressed the importance of framing issues in relatable terms.

“When you remind people that they want to protect the earth for the next generation, for their family especially, that creates a lot of emotional investment,” she said.

Chris Metcalfe, a member of the Foster MBA Class of 2015, shared a story that pushed him to make a positive change to sustainability in his own life. Metcalfe was randomly selected to be part of a 25,000-home focus group for the City of Seattle. The goal was to implement possible city-wide electricity-saving strategies, such as sending out an increased number of electricity reports so homeowners could better track their usage.  

“We discovered that our usage was extremely high, even to the point that one of our neighbors, and this has no truth at all, thought we were having a growing operation in our basement,” said Metcalfe.

The high usage turned the Metcalfes into detectives.

“We started asking ourselves where the high usage could be coming from, we asked ourselves why our basement was so hot, and finally discovered that equipment in the basement that was supposed to shut down at night wasn’t doing so,” he explained.

After resetting the equipment, they noticed a drastic decrease in their usage. Having timelier access to usage feedback (rather than a report once every two months) and verbal criticism from the neighbors pushed the Metcalfes to become emotionally invested and create positive change.

Other panel members agreed that having feedback and being able to see the difference you’re making is a big part in motivating people to be more sustainable. Howard Frumkin, Dean and Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the UW School of Public Health, also spoke to the idea of coupling different departments together in spreading sustainability awareness.

“Simple clear messages, repeated frequently, from a variety of trusted sources - professors, health care providers, and celebrities - are incredibly important,” Frumkin said, humorously repeating the phrase. He also stressed making behavioral changes “cool, popular, and easy.”

“It’s hard to do something everyday if it takes a lot of reinforcement and effort. Sustainability has to become the norm,” emphasized Frumkin.

What makes promoting the sustainability movement plausible is that people really do care. “Why does Starbucks sell fair-trade coffee? Why does Paccar, a global leader in the design, manufacture and customer support of high-quality premium trucks, have a plant where nothing out of the plant gets into a landfill? They do it because customers care. Companies that aren’t making sustainability efforts aren’t going to survive in the future,” said James Jiambalvo, Dean of the UW Michael G. Foster School of Business.

Admittedly, there are challenges, even with high emotional investment. As Hilary Palevsky, a fifth-year PhD student in the School of Oceanography and an active participant in the Program on Climate Change, stressed, “Making big changes, like for instance changing the composition of the atmosphere requires collective action. It’s not something that can be done individually.”  But as Dr. Lisa. J. Graumlich, the inaugural Dean of the College of the Environment at UW, points out, as long as we speak to people’s values and understand where they’re at, we should be able to add to the movement of environmental change.

“We can’t just put out a bullhorn and throw signs at people, we have to relate with them and show people why they should care,” Graumlich said.