When less is more sustainable

Published April 27, 2021, 10 a.m.


Humans tend to solve problems by adding complexity. In a recent study published in the journal Natureresearchers demonstrated that when asked to make changes to modify a situation, people were far more likely to add an element than subtract one. When confronted with an unstable Lego structure, study participants added more bricks than removed them. When asked to solve a problem on a university campus, they suggested additional policies instead of assessing the value of ones already in place.

This ‘additive bias’ can be seen in almost every aspect of our lives. After all, what problem can’t be solved by acquiring some new, life-changing item? 

This is also the case when it comes to sustainability. There is no end of products that you can buy to make your life more environmentally friendly – reusable bags and containers to take to the grocery, smart home devices to regulate your home’s temperature, even carbon credits, which improve your carbon footprint while not requiring any change to your life at all.  

And yet, the most effective things an individual can do to become more sustainable often involve subtraction, such as turning off lights, eating less meat or drinking water from the tap rather than buying it in plastic bottles.

The tendency to add rather than subtract can also be seen in sustainability communication. Corporations in particular want their sustainability messaging to cover every possible angle while avoiding giving offense. The goal of this messaging may be to reach the largest possible audience, but the result is often vague, imprecise declarations that actually say little. Rather than tying your sustainability messaging to dense, complex mission statements, a better approach is what communication experts recommend in general: be clear, concise, memorable and authentic. 

Unlike communication that involves explaining what services a company provides or what products it produces, which can require dealing with complex concepts and themes, communication about sustainability should be simple. Start with the question: what is your company doing to make the world a better place? While it may be necessary to expand the answers to fill 50 pages in a sustainability report, it will have more impact and reach more people when it is distilled into a phrase that can be used in social media posts and advertising or on packaging and labels. QR codes and links to blog post or contextual content give your audience a chance to go deeper into your sustainability story, but you have to get them interested first. So, keep it simple. Decide what really matters for your message. Consider if by saying less, you can really express more.  

Making a real impact on the climate crisis will involve learning to do more with less, including in the ways we talk about it.