Living Standard research shows storytelling advances the sustainability conversation

Living Standard research shows storytelling advances the sustainability conversation


Fall 2019 | Written by Calvin Hennick

Dry Chennai

Here’s the data: In the Indian city of Chennai, people are without water. In June 2019, officials declared that the city had reached “Day Zero,” the day when nearly no water was left in Chennai, as all four main reservoirs supplying water to the city had run dry. A lackluster 2018 monsoon season, which dropped 55 percent less rain than normal, is partly to blame for the drought, which has forced people to rely on alternative water sources such as distant water pumps and private tankers. In the city’s slums, families are receiving as few as 8 gallons of water per day (compared to the 300 daily gallons consumed by the average American household).

The data is important. The data gives you the facts of the situation. But the data doesn’t make you feel the parch in your throat. It doesn’t make you reach to wipe away the sweat from your brow, doesn’t make you ache to wash away the dust caked on your feet.

The data doesn’t give you a true sensory impression of what people are going through in Chennai.

A Boy with a Bucket

Here’s another story: In Chennai, during another dry period several decades in the past, a young boy chased after a truck, holding out a bucket, desperate to bring a bit of water back to his family. The boy’s father earned 3,000 rupees in a month, roughly equivalent to $50. The boy’s shirt was too long, and his shorts were too short, but his family had to make do with the resources available to them.

That boy, now a man, tells his own story to himself over and over, and that story informs the way he lives today. “What we had in our life was very limited,” he says. “But it became very clear to us in the very beginning … that I need to always learn to appreciate what I had, and I need to make sure that there is enough to share with others, because there is always somebody else there who didn’t have enough, as I had.”

“I continue to recognize why it is important to pay it forward,” he continues, “because my father could have easily saved money for himself. But he didn’t. He put that investment on me. And here I am, ready to serve others.”

Today, Mahesh Ramanujam is president and chief executive officer of USGBC.

Above: Growing up in Chennai, India, Mahesh Ramanujam and his family had to make do with the resources available to them. Ramanujam’s father earned 3,000 rupees a month, roughly equivalent to $50. Today Mahesh Ramanujam is president and chief executive officer of USGBC.

The Man on the Stage

Ramanujam learned how to connect his own story to the story of sustainability—and realized they were one and the same.

“I am a technology person,” he says. “I have believed all [my] life that if you did a great job, you would be recognized. All my life, I put all my time and effort into becoming the person who perfected the art of execution. I said, ‘The results will speak for themselves.’”

But in 2016, when he took the helm at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Ramanujam knew that people expected to be able to connect with him on a deeper, more human level. For his audiences, and for USGBC’s partners, the data about his work wasn’t enough; they wanted the story behind the man.

“My team came back and said, ‘Mahesh, it starts with people knowing about you,’” Ramanujam recalls. “My first response was, ‘What do you mean, they need to know me? I’ve been working here for 10 years.’ They said, ‘Sorry, Mahesh. You have to tell your story.’ They literally said, ‘We need to start with your childhood photos.’”

Having grown up poor in India, Ramanujam didn’t have a scrapbook of childhood pictures to scan. His family hadn’t owned a camera. So he cobbled together half a dozen images pulled from school ID cards and group snapshots, and he stood in front of a crowd in Boston and told his story.

“It was the most interesting experience—the most awkward experience—because I’ve been told all my life that bragging is not something that you do,” he recalls. “The most well-received speech of mine, ever, was that speech, because it was my first experience where I made myself vulnerable. As a leader, I had to stand up and really show them that I am human.”

Green Messaging and Action: By the Numbers

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Just 26 percent of people say that the environment is one of their top concerns today, while 40 percent identify the environment as a top concern for the future.

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58 percent of people agree that damage to the environment will “dramatically and negatively impact” all people’s ability to live long and healthy lives.

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Only 11 percent say that “people like me” are responsible for solving environmental problems.

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Barely one in five (22 percent) “strongly agree” that they would spend more money on food, products, and rent in exchange for living in an environment that might lead to a longer, healthier life.

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A similar number, 22 percent, strongly agree that buildings and green space play a “large, fundamental role” in the health of the planet’s environment.

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The word “sustainability” has a net favorability rating of +17 percent, higher than that of the phrase “green movement.” Industry terms like “built environment” can be confusing, since nearly as many people are unfamiliar with the term as view it favorably.

SOURCE: Living Standard U.S. Public Research Report, September 2019.

David Bluestone is a founder and partner at ClearPath Strategies.

Communicating at Scale

The green building movement is currently experiencing the same sort of growing pains that Ramanujam went through several years ago. The data is abundant, and the data is clear: Greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change, and the built environment is a major contributor.

But the data isn’t a story, and it’s not connecting with a wide audience. Outside of development professionals and environmental activists, terms like “climate impacts,” “built environment,” and “carbon footprint” are on the far outskirts of many people’s vocabularies. Therefore, when they’re told that it’s important to lower the carbon footprint of their built environment in order to reduce global climate impacts, they’re unlikely to change their viewpoints or their behavior.

“We have done such a fabulous work around the world, there are 100,000 projects participating in LEED,” Ramanujam says. “But all these efforts, all these activities, and our 25 years of work to engage occupants, was not really scaling. It was only scaling within a limited bubble. I was thinking, why was it taking so much hard work for us to build a connection to people? Do people connect with buildings? That was the question I kept asking. How do we increase the scale? How do we create demand? Because demand changes everything.”

To answer these questions, USGBC commissioned ClearPath Strategies, a global public opinion research company, to conduct in-depth national qualitative and quantitative research on people’s views about the environment. The independent study reached far beyond the usual audience for LEED, including focus groups with people like community opinion formers and young parents, as well as a survey of the general public.

The research uncovered a significant gap between the way that sustainability is typically discussed and the types of concerns most people have; it also revealed a gap between people’s professed concern for the environment and their own actions.

Additionally, the research showed that green buildings are largely invisible when it comes to most people’s perception of factors that have an impact on the environment. When presented with a list of words and phrases that relate to creating an environment that lets people live longer and healthier lives, only 11 percent chose “green buildings” as one of the top three choices—at the bottom of the list and far behind factors such as recycling (45 percent) and conserving water (40 percent).

The research is illuminating, in both the way it shows the limitations of the current conversation around climate change, and the way it points toward a vocabulary that will better help the green building community connect with a wider audience. But the biggest takeaway, perhaps, is the idea that human impacts—and human stories—must be at the forefront of messaging around the built environment.

“For too long, most of us in the green building community have simply been talking to ourselves,” Ramanujam writes in the first report that outlines the research findings. “We are not reaching the broader population effectively enough to change their behavior or decisions on the scale necessary to combat climate-related risks.”

“But we can,” he adds. “If we listen and learn. And if we ask the right questions.”

Here is a list of different words and phrases associated with the environment and being green. Which THREE words or phrases are MOST STRONGLY/LEAST related to creating an environment that lets you live a longer and healthier life?

SOURCE: Living Standard U.S. Public Research Report, Spring 2019.

Vocabulary Lessons

David Bluestone, founder and partner at ClearPath Strategies, led the research for the Living Standard report. “There’s a disconnect between people’s expressed concerns about the environment and their willingness to do something about it,” he says. “Some think changing their behavior will cost them more money, some people feel powerless, and some feel that their individual actions are just a drop in the bucket. That’s the context that we found, and then we immediately moved into, ‘What do we do about it?’”

Bluestone says that people in the United States are more responsive to tangible, near-term outcomes, such as extreme weather events, than they are to far-off global consequences. They also respond when environmental issues are connected to their personal health and that of their families. “We cannot make this relevant to folks if they cannot locate themselves in the problem,” he says.

When he asked focus groups to describe what the term “built environment” meant, for example, they talked about things like bike racks and outdoor bathroom facilities. They thought that the term literally meant things that were built in the outside environment.

The research shows when we choose our words carefully and purposefully, we can have very different, and much more positive, reaction from the public we wish to reach. For example, survey respondents rated the anthropomorphized term “Mother Nature” more favorably than “Planet Earth.” Moreover, terms that green building might use interchangeably to describe its mission and values provoked very different responses among the broader public. The research showed the “environment” connotes the physical elements of nature many can relate to, and ”sustainability” refers to behaviors people aspire to, but when they were asked to rate the term “green movement,” they felt it was politically charged, dogmatic, and not inclusive to them as a concerned, but not activist, public.

One focus group participant described it as follows: “I’m about recycling, I’m about conserving water [and] conserving energy. Yet, I’m not one that says, ‘Don’t build the pipeline because the squirrel’s going to be affected.’ There’s those kind of environmentalist people, and there [are] guys like me that are more practical. They do what they can, day to day, and try to look at the big picture.”

Bluestone emphasizes how important it is to communicate with words and phrases that strike a chord with people, and to skip jargon.

The Mushrooms Worth a Thousand Data Points

In an effort to put human outcomes front and center in the green building conversation, USGBC launched the Living Standard campaign in 2018. Through the effort, USGBC is gathering written narratives and video testimonials from both industry players and those not necessarily involved in green building, encouraging them to tell their stories in ways that will connect with others and motivate change.

So far, the campaign has received more than 100 personal story submissions—stories like the one told by Vince Meldrum, president and chief executive officer at Earth Force, about a group of kids who discovered mushrooms growing out of the baseboards of their middle-school classroom in northern Virginia.

“There [are] all kinds of stats about mold in the classroom, but hearing about the passion these young people have to solve a problem is going to open your eyes a lot more than the statistics,” Meldrum says. “You’ve got to get people’s attention before you can get them interested in the numbers.”

The group of middle school students in Alexandria collected mold samples from their classroom and sent them to a lab to have them analyzed, and they also drafted a mold remediation policy that they are now trying to convince state legislators to adopt.

Even embedded within the story about the kids, there’s a narrative about how stories are more persuasive than data. “The first time they talked to school board members and said, ‘There’s mold in three percent of the space in this classroom’ … that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing,” Meldrum says. “But the kids redesigned their presentation. Now, it starts with pictures of mushrooms growing out of the wall. There’s something about seeing that mushroom growing from underneath the baseboard. That picture alone is more impactful than any statistics that the kids can provide.”

Above Left: Vince Meldrum is president and chief executive officer at Earth Force. Photo: Ryan Smith. Above: Yellow mushroom mold. Above Right: Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Glenda Abney is the director of EarthWays Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s sustainability division.

Different Audience, Different Story

After getting the initial feedback from public opinion research, USGBC recognized that the organization also needed to change how it spoke about these issues. That is why USGBC released the Living Standard Action Toolkit this year to provide tips on how sustainability advocates can engage the public with messages, words, and, yes, data that resonate best with the people our community serves.

When officials at the Missouri Botanical Garden heard about the Living Standard Action Toolkit, they instantly recognized tactics that they had been employing for years. “One of our challenges is to explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and figure out how to say it succinctly,” says Glenda Abney, director of EarthWays Center, the Missouri Botanical Garden’s sustainability division.

With a goal to relate the things that are most important to the Botanical Garden, Abney says her group tries to tailor its message depending on its audience. “If we’re talking to the public about improving energy efficiency in their homes, we’ll talk about comfort, safety, health, durability, and efficiency,” she says. “And when we’re talking about efficiency, it’s the efficiency of saving money, and it’s also the efficiency of using fewer environmental resources, resulting in cleaner air, water, and soil.”

SOURCE: The Standard Issue 002, U.S. Public Research Report, Fall 2019

Abney’s messaging to business audiences has a slightly different focus. “A lot of the messages are very specific to what their clients and employees are demanding,” she says. “Many businesses are going green because their clients and future employees care about this.”

For the wider public, Abney says, positive messaging tends to drive engagement more than warnings about “doomsday” scenarios. Living Standard public opinion research shows the same phenomenon quantitatively. As Abney explains, “People generally want to live sustainably so it saves natural resources and helps them live healthier and save money. They just need someone to help them in this journey. That’s where we come in. Messaging matters, and the result can be positive for the environment, and the garden is planning on using the Living Standard Toolkit in the future to help with this.”

What’s Growing in Yuma

Jennifer Dowd is the manager of K–12 education programs at the National Wildlife Federation. Photo: Ara Howrani

At an elementary school in Yuma, Arizona, general education students decided to combine their school garden with a local Special Olympics program. “They created sensory gardens, and they created relationships between general education students and students who have severe and profound disabilities,” explains Jennifer Dowd, manager of K–12 education programs at the National Wildlife Federation. In partnership with General Motors, NWF runs the Eco-Green Program, which supports initiatives like the one in Yuma.

A sensory garden in Arizona will not, of course, have a measurable impact on sea level rise, or on global average temperatures, or on the melt rate of polar ice caps. But, Dowd says, the human connections that result from the program touch people in a way that data points generally don’t.

“It’s about the moment when the general education student comes in and is so excited to connect with their friend, to be the one [who] helps them pull the wheelchair outside and bring them to the garden beds that are designed to be accessible for wheelchairs,” Dowd says. “They work together to water the plants, to care for the life in the ground that they’ve seeded. As time goes on, the growth happens, not just with the plants, but between the people.”

At the end of each year, Dowd puts together a report outlining the collective impact of programs like this. “I really don’t think that report would mean that much without the stories,” she says.

An elementary school in Yuma, Arizona, created sensory gardens that helped build relationships between general education students and students who have severe and profound disabilities.

A Job Called “Common Sense”

George Bandy Jr. is the chief sustainability officer for Mohawk Flooring North America. Photo courtesy of Mohawk

When George Bandy Jr., chief sustainability officer for Mohawk Flooring North America and winner of the 2018 GreenBuild Leadership Award, began working in the field, he tried to explain his new job to his grandmother. “She said, ‘We paid for all the schooling for this boy, and he got a job doing something called ‘common sense,’” Bandy recalls.

The story illustrates the ways that many people have historically valued thrift and efficiency for their own sake, without requiring a movement to motivate their behavior. Bandy says that the sustainability community needs to find ways to extend its messaging to these people—in particular, to low-income communities and people of color—if it hopes to have a global impact.

“Everybody has been all about generating data. What was lost was the whole social aspect of why are we doing this at all,” Bandy says. “It was a hard conversation to have, because you would be talking about environmental justice, and the impact on communities that people didn’t want to talk about. That same community is becoming the majority of the population. If we’re not talking to them, we won’t be able to succeed in our goals. If we’re only educating 50-year-old males around sustainability, then how are we going to get to our goals around reducing greenhouse gas emissions?”

Bandy says that Mohawk communicates with its employees about sustainable changes they can make that will save them money over the long term, such as switching to LED bulbs in their homes. Framing environmental issues in terms of cost savings, Bandy says, will connect with the commonsense ethos of people like his grandmother.

“What the Living Standard is really talking about is, ‘How do you communicate with people from all walks of life?’” Bandy says. “I always ask this question, and people always look at things differently: ‘If you’ve got to ask a grandmother in a subsidized housing project to choose between a smart thermostat and getting her medicine, what do you think she’s going to choose?’ Those decisions happen every day.”

Call To Action

Incorporate more green living practices in your daily life

USGBC believes in green buildings and green communities and wants everyone to incorporate that ethos into their everyday life. This can include recycling, turning off lights, conserving water, or bringing air-purifying plants into your home or work.

Those small actions help you live a healthier life and can also save you money.

Jerry Tinianow is a consultant for Western Urban Sustainability Advisors. Photo: Mark Osler

Agreement Over Argument

Jerry Tinianow, former chief sustainability officer for Denver and now a consultant for Western Urban Sustainability Advisors, LLC, absolutely refuses to argue about environment-related topics.

“We made a decision at the very beginning that we would never even come up with an official definition of sustainability in Denver,” he says. “We need to get down to working on this stuff, and not get into arguments about what it does and does not mean.”

Several years ago, when the city was promoting a climate change plan, a group of opponents showed up at a public meeting. They railed against Tinianow’s plan, calling it a “socialist conspiracy.”

Tinianow didn’t respond to their criticisms. Instead, he asked one of the men if he’d ever heard of a solar garden. The man hadn’t, and so Tinianow explained how he and his wife had invested in panels at a solar garden and were receiving a return in the form of renewable energy credits. “I told him we’d been getting an 8 percent return, and that if we get tired of it, we can sell it,” Tinianow recalls. “I said, ‘What do you think of that?’ And the guy said, ‘Well, that’s something I could really get into.’”

“We really try to keep our focus on influencing behavior,” Tinianow adds. “And one way that you do not influence behavior is by browbeating and arguing with people.”

EcoRise is an organization that provides micro-grants and support for school-based sustainability programs such as caring for hives to collect honey, sorting trash to learn about waste streams, composting, and planting gardens.

(Another) Anecdote About Kids

Children make for compelling stories—because, let’s face it, they face the highest stakes. The same people who find ways to quibble with or dismiss perfectly valid scientific research may find themselves hard-pressed to take issue with anecdotes about groups of kids learning to take better care of their community and their planet.

Gina LaMotte is president and founder of EcoRise, an organization that provides micro-grants and support for school-based sustainability programs. Recently, LaMotte was presenting to a corporation, seeking funding and partnership. “We did the PowerPoint, we talked through all the questions,” LaMotte says. “Then one of my colleagues said, ‘Can we go to YouTube and pull up that video about the kids with the beekeeping project?’”

The video played, showing elementary kids in Austin, Texas, donning full beekeeping outfits, caring for hives, collecting honey, and meeting with their mayor. “We played this video, and these three men, their hearts melted, and they said, ‘Oh my god, we have to show that video to the boss, you should have shown us this video from the beginning,’” LaMotte says.

Gina LaMotte is president and founder of EcoRise.

The Search for the Perfect Story

Mike Carey is the environmental sustainability coordinator for Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California. Photo: Adeeb Howrani

Mahesh Ramanujam (center) looks over a set of house plans with Marshall Gobuty (right), principal of Pearl Homes, Mirabella Homes, and MGI USA, Inc., along with a construction manager in Florida. Mirabella Homes are built to be energy-efficient and achieve LEED certification.

Since launching the Living Standard campaign, Ramanujam has been traveling around the country, meeting with sustainability leaders and encouraging them to share their stories—not just in their own communities, or with their funders and supporters, but also with him. He’s been looking for stories that go beyond marketing pitches, stories that are relatable and surprising, stories that will create change.
Ramanujam is, essentially, on a quest to find the vital stories about sustainability.

And he may have found it, in the form of a takeout food container.

When Ramanujam visited Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, for a LEED plaque presentation, he discovered that the school’s recycling center has found a local, innovative solution to a common problem. Recently, China has begun refusing to take U.S. plastics for recycling, causing institutions and haulers to scramble to find new ways to get rid of countless water bottles without dumping them in landfills.

Mike Carey, environmental sustainability coordinator at the college, has partnered with a nearby company that makes clamshell takeout food containers from recycled plastic. The facility is only 40 miles from Orange Coast College (a far cry from China), and the company pays the school for the privilege of taking its plastic. In fact, the college even uses the containers in their own food service operations.

“It is a closed-loop system,” Carey says. “We’re using the actual products that are made from the materials we collect. I can hold a plastic water bottle in one hand, and hold a takeout container in the other hand, and say, ‘This gets made into this.’ It’s tangible. People can see it.”

In the simplicity of that clamshell takeout container, Ramanujam sees what he is looking for in the Living Standard campaign.

“That’s a story that has accountability, a story that has individual action,” Ramanujam says. “It is a story about students, it’s about people. It’s about community collaboration. That’s a story that I think we can replicate.”

The Big Picture

New research demonstrates that most people believe that urgent action is needed to protect the environment.

The public overwhelmingly agrees that the environment is an urgent concern for humanity.

People say that climate change is one of their most urgent concerns about the future, but only a passing concern at the present moment. While people are deeply concerned about the health of the environment over the long term and agree that we are all responsible for solving these problems, they do very little to address them in their daily lives.


There is a real gap between the conceptual enormity of the problem and how people seek to address it in their daily lives. Plus, in a wake-up call to the green building community, people in general still rank green buildings quite low as a viable avenue for improving the environment.

To motivate people to do more, conversations need to center on human terms—not global stakes.

The green building community can mobilize and inspire this change by connecting messaging to health outcomes for human beings, by continuing to prove that LEED has a role to play, and by using inclusive words and phrasing.

In the next couple of years, do you think you will do more, the same, or less to create an environment that lets you live a longer and healthier life?

SOURCE: Living Standard U.S. Public Research Report, Spring 2019.

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