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Westminster students say guilt-based eco-marketing is ineffective

A man sits behind a desk looking at an i-Pad in the poster covered Environmental Center at Westminster College.
 Harbor Larsen, Environmental Center communication coordinator and junior biology  major,  scrolls  on  his  tablet  in  the  Environmental  Center  Nov.  15.  Larsen said institutional changes are what are going to really matter to the environment,  but  those  changes  are  slow  and  complicated.  “We  discussed  with some students who aren’t in the Environmental Center and a lot of them said that when they see those things on campus, specifically the ‘these come from trees’ in the bathrooms and on Web Print, it just feels like shaming,” Larsen said. Photo courtesy of Maddie Cushing.

Westminster College, like many schools and organizations, encourages eco-friendly behaviors through the use of marketing such as signage and stickers around campus. While members of the Westminster community agree it is a positive endeavor, some students say they are worried about some of the guilt and shame-based tactics used to advocate for green behaviors.

Maya Leander, a junior psychology major who someday hopes to work in environmental psychology, said she is glad to see Westminster taking steps to promote environmentally friendly practices, but she doesn’t necessarily agree with some of the methods the college uses to do it.

“[Using guilt can be effective],” Leander said. “It obviously makes me feel bad and makes me want to do something, but I also think there are other ways to get the message across without necessarily making people so terrified that they don’t think they can do anything, or that anything they do won’t matter.”

Changes in the Environmental Center

Before the Fall 2021 semester, the Environmental Center lost their head coordinator, which left them in a bit of a tricky spot for a few weeks, according to communication coordinator for the center and junior biology major Harbor Larsen. 

Larsen said a new coordinator has since been brought on and the center is starting to get back on its feet, which was also an excellent opportunity to make some positive changes.

“We want to focus on environmental justice, reparations and building a better society for both the environment and the people affected by that,” Larsen said.

Larsen also said the Environmental Center recently had a conversation about the current eco-marketing on campus and student reactions to those campaigns. He said he doesn’t know if the current guilt-based eco-marketing campaigns came from the Environmental Center, as they came before his tenure. Regardless, he said, that’s not the direction the center wants to move in.

“We discussed with some students who aren’t in the Environmental Center and a lot of them said that when they see those things on campus, specifically the ‘these come from trees’ in the bathrooms and on the Web Print, it just feels like shaming,” Larsen said. “[…] Yes, using less paper towels does have an impact, but that’s not where the majority of environmental impact is coming from. Messages get a little muddy when we do eco-marketing in that way.”

Larsen said it’s not only important to move towards a more positive and affirming type of eco-marketing, but it’s also vital to give alternatives and specific ways in which behavior can change to truly help the planet. 

One way students can make a real difference on campus is by working in the Organic Garden, or in the orchard under Black Bridge the Environmental Center is in the process of creating, according to Larson.

“Institutional changes are the best way to go about [going green], but those changes are slow and they’re very complicated because they involve a change in thinking about how the institution operates,” Larsen said. “And I think little things can add up. Individual actions that students take can add up as well.”

A worn-out sticker on a silver paper towel dispenser with “Remember these come from trees” written on a graphic of a green leaf.
A “these come from trees” sticker sits plastered on a paper towel dispenser in Jewett Center for the Performing Arts Nov. 4. While using a few less paper towels will have an impact on the environment, that’s not the major problem when it comes to saving the planet, according to Environmental Center Communication Coordinator and junior biology major Harbor Larsen. Photo courtesy of Maddie Cushing.

Guilt Based Eco-Marketing and Accessibility

Dan Fenn, a sophomore public health major, is also a coordinator for the Disability Justice program on campus. He said in his personal experience, guilt based campaigns disproportionately affect disabled people in a wide variety of ways.

Fenn said one instance he experienced had to do with the plastic straw campaign. Fenn said it was hard for him to hold things due to chronic pain and illness, which made straws an important accessibility feature for him. 

Though Fenn said this isn’t a huge problem at Westminster — where paper straws are widely available — it made him think about how shame-based eco-marketing campaigns can be hard to engage with as a disabled person.

“It’s unfair to [disabled people] to have those guilt driven measures placed against them, when [something] is their best option in terms of accessibility,” Fenn said. “It’s a complicated issue, and I think it’s really important for people to be conscious about ways they’re consuming, but also be conscious that the behaviors of other individuals might not be so simple as a choice or a preference, but something that is accessible versus not accessible.”

Fenn said it is hard to say what the best course of action would be to make eco-marketing the most accessible and inclusive it can be, because disabilities and personal experiences are so varied. However, Fenn said he had important advice to start moving in the right direction.

“I think it’s always good to keep in mind the experiences that aren’t your own,” Fenn said. “Just go through a couple things like people who are hard of hearing, people who are low-vision or blind, people who use wheelchairs, and think ‘how might this affect someone who I don’t necessarily have similar experiences to?’”

The Story Behind Carbon Footprints

Carbon footprints are one of the most common guilt-tool used by environmental advocates to promote awareness of the state of the planet as well as change on an individual level, according to an article by The Guardian. However, the origins of the way people think about carbon footprints today comes from a source that might be surprising, according to articles by The Guardian and CLEAR Center

Carbon footprints came about when an advertising firm working for British Petroleum needed a way to deflect the blame for climate change from fossil fuel companies to someone else, according to the article by The Guardian.

“Before [the BP campaign], [carbon footprints] were a more abstract ecological concept,’ Larsen said. “Because there was someone with a lot of money and a vested interest in not taking responsibility for climate change, they foisted the blame upon the individual. It’s not where they originated, but the carbon footprint was the [footprint] we latched onto because BP started that campaign.”

When asked if he thought society was putting too much stock into carbon footprints, Larsen said the answer was both yes and no.

“I think that carbon footprints are an important tool for analyzing impact, but I think that your individual carbon footprint when compared to the whole campus’, or BP’s, or any other oil/gas company, is miniscule,” Larsen said. “It’s not your little footprints that are going to make the difference.”

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Maddie Cushing is a senior at Westminster College studying communication and psychology. When she’s not busy cracking down on her schoolwork, Maddie can be found exploring spooky spots around the Salt Lake Valley and trying out new coffee shops with her dog, Arya.

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