Storytelling for sustainability

Climate change has thrown our society into disarray, with a million ideas and solutions drowning each other out.
Strange as it may sound, what we need is a good story.

Climate change has thrown our society into disarray.
There is conflict and confusion over cause, severity and outcomes. A million ideas and solutions drown each other out. Consumers don’t know who to believe, what to do or how to feel. At best, we’re stressed and confused. At worst, we’re catatonic and numb, unable to effect any change at all.
Strange as it may sound, what we need is a good story.
Storytelling is, and always has been, the antidote to information overload. As Edward Wachtman, founder of Bowen Island, B.C.-based market research and narrative analysis firm StoryTellings says, stories are the structures that bring order to our existence.
As humans, we are wired for order and sequence. We intuitively organize the millions of independent events in our lives into a clean, comprehensible structure with a past, present and future, and one of the mechanisms we use to do this is storytelling.
Stories bring an emotional context to the unfamiliar, enabling us to not only process information, but determine if that info should sway us.
Truth is, you can’t win anyone over with a superior argument. You need to connect with people on an emotional level. When Aeschines spoke, they said “How well he speaks.” But when Demosthenes spoke, they said “Let us march against Philip.”

What’s the green story?
Climate change, sustainability and green innovation may be relatively new topics. But as the dusty newspaper aphorism goes, there are no new stories.
When you dig into the disarray, you find many elements of our current situation fall naturally into a story template. That template, described by green PR expert Jim Hoggan, has the following elements:
•    foreboding: a vague sense that something isn’t right
•    triggering event: a moment that causes us to act
•    epiphany: the curtains draw back and we see clearly
•    reconciliation: we act to bring reality in line with our vision
•    transformation: we grow based on the experience
•    return and responsibility: we bring our new wisdom to daily life
Let’s take the Ray Anderson story. Anderson runs Interface, a U.S.-based global modular carpet manufacturer that is a shining light of green innovation. For years, he answered Interface’s environmental critics with “I’m doing what I have to – I’m obeying the law” despite his growing sense of foreboding about his company’s impact.
His triggering event was reading Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce, leading to the epiphany that “business as usual” would make his legacy a dead planet.
Reconciliation came when he redefined Interface’s mission, and brought his managers aboard to create a bold new vision.
This led to Interface’s transformation, with incredible product and business model innovations culminating in its number one ranking in the London-based SustainAbility global survey.
The story ends with Anderson’s new life as a sought-after speaker and advisor on all issues eco – including a key role advising on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

Innovation needs storytelling
Innovation (green or otherwise) is, by definition, new. In a world moving at breakneck speed, new is not always welcome.
Storytelling ensures that your innovation has the momentum it needs to overcome inertia and resistance to change – both inside your organization and out in the real world.
Vancouver’s “Green Capital” story does this masterfully. Created to galvanize the city prior to the 2010 Olympics, Green Capital took on the doubters and skeptics. It laid out mayor Gregor Robertson’s vision for creating the greenest city in North America and gave examples of green capitalists who were going to lead the way.
From its catchy title to its simple and enticing essence (“Green Capital is Vancouver’s currency and its economy; it’s our focus and our future”), Green Capital gave us all a common language and vision. We could all relate to it, feel a part of it and pass it along.
Getting all these pieces right is critical. A staggeringly large number of things have to go just right for a new idea, service or business model to ever see the light of day – and many of them involve changing or expanding consumer thinking. Without the glue, context and inspiration of storytelling, the odds are stacked against you.
Without a story, a great innovation can be reduced to a clever invention among a million clever inventions. With a story, it can help educate consumers, drive them to positive behaviour change and perhaps even inspire greater, more fervent climate action. Not bad for a new product or service.

Marc Stoiber is VP Green Innovation at Maddock Douglas, a leading North American innovation agency. He has 20 years experience building brands, and is passionate about innovation and sustainability. He can be reached at