4 ways to shape a winning sustainable lifestyles campaign

How do we create effective campaigns for living well and sustainably? Where we live, what we eat, how we move around, all have an impact on the issues we care about - our happiness, connected communities, equity, security, climate change and more. Lightening our load on the planet while improving our daily lives is a worthwhile and urgent goal for the coming decade.

The United Nations wanted our team to bring together what we’ve learned about effective campaigns with the best knowledge on fostering sustainable lifestyles. We’re a North American-based global research institute and network, a climate campaigning organization, and a sustainability nonprofit. With the UN and advisors, we explored 16 cases from around the world - including China, Hungary and the USA - to reveal the elements that make them effective for our report

Here are four principles to shape a winning sustainable lifestyles campaign or initiative - and cut through a fragmented and largely pro-consumption marketing landscape:

  • Systemic: consider the systemic nature of lifestyles, and point to the broader system even when a campaign focuses on a specific sector like food or mobility.
  • Dynamic Life Changes: take advantage of the windows of opportunity for behavior change that open with life stages and transitions, like moving house or having children.
  • Diversity: accommodate the diversity in lifestyles - there is a range of sustainable life choices, not just one path.
  • Collective Action: go beyond individual action to advance change - individual lifestyles are shaped by context and can be shifted by collective action.
These are four of the eight principles featured in the report, woven together as part of a strategic roadmap. The four principles below focus on refining your strategy. Let's look at them in turn.

SYSTEMIC: consider the systemic nature of lifestyles, and point to the broader system even when a campaign focuses on a specific sector like food or mobility

Effective campaigns reveal the big picture, as sustainable lifestyles don’t exist in a vacuum. There are underlying drivers and structures that enable - or undermine - sustainable lifestyles. This mix of attitudes, groups, institutions and infrastructure calls for a systemic approaches and the engagement of a broad range of partners beyond individual consumers.

Example: The Story of Stuff project sheds light on patterns driving an unsustainable economy. Their short film, The Story of Bottled Water looks at  ‘desire creation’ through marketing (‘manufactured demand’); and the film "Built for the Dump" tackles planned obsolescence in the consumer electronics industry.  Embedding a campaign into a broader system of lifestyle choices and constraints is important but often overlooked.

A systems lens can also help a campaign anticipate and address unintended consequences when savings accrued from reducing consumption in one domain or one practice lead to increased consumption in others.

DYNAMIC LIFE CHANGES: take advantage of the windows of opportunity for behavior change that open with life stages and transitions, like moving house or having children.

Consumption behaviors evolve over the course of our lives, often changing in response to major life events and transitions. Dynamic life changes can include slower transitions (becoming an adult), as well as more rapid transitions (having a baby, moving cities). Possible turning points can be happy or sad, e.g., an elderly widower choosing a denser living arrangements for his remaining years.

Example: Shark Truth taps traditional Chinese values to shift how prosperity is celebrated at weddings. The Fin Free Weddings campaign challenges the cultural narrative around shark fin soup which is traditionally associated with power, wealth, and generosity, and serving it at weddings is viewed as a sign of respect to guests. Shark Truth draws on the diversity of Chinese cuisine to develop a variety of recipes that address the same cultural needs, without having the same harmful environmental impacts. The campaign has created an opportunity to celebrate in a more ecologically sustainable way that is in line with the couple’s values as well as those of the community.

Effective campaigns take advantage of the disruptive nature of these events to shift thinking and encourage new patterns of behavior. Entry points include changing how we give gifts or supporting those who connect with people during transition times, such as career counsellors, caregivers or wedding planners.

DIVERSITY: accommodate the diversity in lifestyles - there is a range of sustainable life choices, not just one path.

Campaigns that resonate are good at illustrating the range of ways sustainable lifestyles emerge versus taking a one size fits all approach. Sustainable lifestyles are not one thing - they are different across regions, income, gender, age, ethnicity and other factors. One technique for reflecting this insight is to tap into the emotional depth and diversity of cultural stories and practices to help convey campaign relevance.

Example: Happiness and prosperity are two key concepts in Chinese culture that provide compelling hooks in the China Dream initiative. A range of stakeholders were involved in workshops to visualize a better quality of life which generated the campaign’s framing concept of “living more, not just having more.” China Dream’s outreach strategy is aimed at different demographics, across generations and levels of income. The campaign includes videos, social media and also leverages traditional practices such as calligraphy to engage people from many backgrounds and interests.

Communication efforts must recognize differences and tailor messaging and engagement to appeal to different stakeholder groups, particularly when aiming to increase relevance beyond those who identify themselves as sustainability-minded.

COLLECTIVE ACTION: go beyond individual action to advance change - individual lifestyles are shaped by context and can be shifted by collective action.

Effective lifestyle campaigns avoid placing the burden of responsibility for systemic change on individuals alone. Instead, they identify how personal actions can make a difference when aggregated with other individual actions to produce a larger impact. Better yet, they create opportunities to influence systemic change, such as shifts in policy or the creation of new infrastructure that facilitates sustainable lifestyle choices. They tap into existing networks where people already have strong relationships and/or the willingness and capacity to support one another in making lifestyle changes, such as industry associations or clubs. Initiatives that engage neighbours can provide a strong peer-to-peer support network for fostering shifts in behaviour.

Example: The EnergiaKözösségek (EnergyNeighbourhoods) campaign in Hungary brings together groups of 5-12 households to set and achieve an energy reduction goal by working together, competing with other EnergyNeighbourhoods. They get tips on sustainable eating, mobility and free time. Giving people a clear role is key: sometimes it’s not disinterest that stops people from taking action but a lack of clarity on what they can do to make a difference. Opportunities need to be tailored to the capacity of the individual and their context, including where they situate across a spectrum of change strategies.


You can discover more about these insights and others in the report we published with United Nations Environment. This report walks you through the following steps for designing, adapting and evaluating sustainable lifestyles campaigns and initiatives: 1. Understand Audiences, 2. Set Goals, 3. Determine Strategies, and 4. Measure and Respond. There are 8 operating principles, including the four described in this blog. Sixteen cases highlight the principles and are accompanied by tips. If you teach or train, we’ve separated out guiding questions as well as each of the cases for use in the classroom - you can find them here.

Designing from your stakeholders’ needs is a critical first step - and one that can be missed in the rush to start a campaign or initiative - we’ve separated it out as the first step. Effective sustainable lifestyle initiatives and campaigns tap into the needs, core values and aspirations of people in engaging, accessible and relevant ways. Campaigns do well if they continue to listen closely to the concerns and ideas of campaign participants throughout, evolving their efforts based on feedback.

We place a strong emphasis on measuring impact throughout - and being responsive as new information and insights emerge. There are many benefits of sustainable lifestyles, which can be measured including security and social connection. Ultimately, lifestyle shifts are necessary for environmental reasons as well: we have one finite planet. Effective sustainable lifestyles campaigns and initiatives move the dial towards absolute reductions in material and energy - as well as improvements in our daily lives and the livelihoods of producers.

Do these insights reflect your experience of sustainable lifestyles campaigns?

We look forward to your reflections as we seek to design, amplify, renew or improve sustainable lifestyles campaigns and initiatives. Are there steps or principles you find surprising or missing? Or ones that you can add to by suggesting other insights and examples?

Our UN Environment report is called Fostering and Communicating Sustainable Lifestyles: Principles and Emerging Practices (2016). The report co-authors are Philip J. Vergragt and Halina Szejnwald Brown (SCORAI – Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative); Vanessa Timmer, Dagmar Timmer, Dwayne A. Appleby (One Earth); Cara Pike, Sutton Eaves, Rebecca McNeil (Climate Access); and John Stutz (Tellus Institute). Read it here.


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UN report sets out a roadmap for communicating sustainable lifestyles with cases from China to Canada: https://tinyurl.com/gt98wnq

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Dagmar Timmer, One Earth, is one of the co-authors for this report: Fostering and Communicating Sustainable Lifestyles: Principles and Emerging Practices. United Nations Environment Programme - Sustainable Lifestyles, Cities and Industry Branch (UN Environment), 2016.