Ian Monroe is the founder of Oroeco, a pioneering social network focused on voluntary carbon reduction. I interviewed him regarding the challenges of convincing consumers to reduce their carbon use. The interview has been condensed.
Matthew Metz (MNM): What motivated you to start Oroeco?
Ian Monroe (IM): Part of the motivation is just doing anything and everything I can to help solve climate change. I grew up on a small organic farm in Northern California and have seen the effects of climate change in drought and wild fires.
I have worked in international development on renewable energy and climate solutions throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. Communities within the fringe of poverty appreciate that climate change is really a social justice and racial justice issue. Climate change is a tremendous human issue which intersects with everything I care about.
We now have some amazing technology and social networking tools that allow us to connect information with incentives to shift behavior, but we are not really using these technology tools yet to shift our behavior around climate change.
MNM: What have been your most important learnings about voluntary carbon reduction and consumers’ interest in reducing their carbon use?
IM: On the Oroeco site we have about fifty different personalized tips based on your actual lifestyle that can help you reduce your personal carbon footprint ranging from home energy to transportation to diet. We’ve seen people make commitments to reduce their carbon footprint by every one of the choices that we have offered.
The ones that are the most popular out of those fifty choices or so are recycling, turning the lights off, using reusable bags and eating less meat and reducing food waste. Some other popular ones are using reusable mugs and washing with cold water when doing laundry. Some of the ones that are more difficult for people to commit to are ones that take a substantial amount of investment, such as putting solar panels on your roof.
MNM: Have people really engaged the way that you had hoped? What is holding them back?
IM: I think a lot of [the reluctance to engage] is about design, and that’s definitely still something that we are still working to improve at Oroeco, to just make that overall user experience feel as fun and engaging and rewarding as possible. Something we always have sought out to incorporate more into Oroeco is giving people both indirect and direct rewards for committing to more climate-friendly activities like installing solar panels and eating less meat.
To scale voluntary reduction, we really need to show people what’s in it for them, both in terms of saving money as well as saving the climate. American households can reduce their carbon footprint by over 20% while saving more than $1,000 a year.
For many people, though, saving money is not the most motivational thing. It’s much more about how we think we are doing compared to what’s normal, what’s expected and what our peers are doing – our friends and our neighbors. Connecting with social networking really allows us to get directly at that in a much better way.
But I think that most important is the feeling you are being a good person, a good neighbor, a responsible citizen and you are actually getting recognized for that in your peer group and with your friends and family.
We need to figure out how to make climate polluting activities as socially unacceptable as throwing litter on the ground is now.
MNM: What is going to provoke that cultural shift? People have been extremely reluctant to try to create norms for consumer because of concerns about guilt and shame.
IM: I think we need a much better advertising and marketing campaign around climate change, both to communicate the reality of what is already happening and what will happen if we don’t solve the problem. We also need to communicate effectively the solutions and how we can engage with citizens as consumers and as investors. There are some great studies out there that are talking about how to most effectively to do that messaging.
Ad agencies and consumer products companies have known for decades about how to engage people and convince us to buy things that we don’t necessarily really need, right? We need to figure out how to leverage that same marketing muscle for convincing us to not buy things.
Part of the problem is there isn’t money in doing that. There are a lot of funding campaigns that could come through either non-profits or government agencies. I think the large environmental non-profits are generally wary to do that, both because they’ve done their own research and they’ve found that they don’t get donations when they tell people to stop consuming things, and to be more efficient about their activities. They get donations when they point a finger at somebody else, be it government or the fossil fuel industry. But some of that, though, I think, really, is changing with the generations.
My students at Stanford who are much more on the side of seeing the need for personal action and community bottom-up action and they are certainly not just pointing the finger at oil companies and pointing the finger at government and saying, “Hey! You guys have to fix this problem and we are not going to be a part of it.”
So, I think that there is a generational shift that’s going on that is more about personal responsibility, bottom-up change and technology and social networks. There is also some really exciting stuff going on with the shift of trillions of dollars of investments out of dirty energy companies (oil, coal and gas) into more sustainable investment funds and sustainable energy and energy-efficiency solutions.
MNM: You are working in the investment area as well with Etho Capital.
IM: Etho Capital creates investment funds that are optimized for having a substantially lower carbon footprint as well as overall sustainability screens and financial performance at the same time.
And the really cool thing is, at least, historically we’ve seen that portfolios can go fully fossil-free and sustainable and actually have better financial performance than conventional funds.
MNM: Why aren’t efforts to persuade people to use less carbon more common?
IM: It is quite surprising how little attention is paid to engaging the public and driving bottom-up action. I think a lot of it is there is just not a lot of funding in this area right now. Politicians don’t want to do it because they don’t want to be telling their citizens to buy less stuff and be more efficient. There should be Public Services Announcements on reducing one’s carbon, but that isn’t being done yet.
I think if you really empower people with actions that they can take and they feel like they are getting rewarded taking those actions, many people will step up to do it. But people want to know that it’s normal, and that they are going to be getting rewarded socially, extrinsically or otherwise. The key is getting the information and the incentives to the right place.