Commentary: Bridging the Environmental Information Gap

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 07.17.2012


Can you hear me now?  Do you trust me yet?


Recently a reader commented that he often met people who didn’t trust life cycle assessment (LCA), because they felt every time this method was used to compare wood to some other material, wood came out as the more environmentally friendly material.  The suggestion was that to produce such consistent results LCA must be somehow biased in favor of wood.  The reader felt that this was a lot like saying scientific nutritional research must be biased because every time scientists compare broccoli to cheese puffs, broccoli comes out as being better for you.  The reader questioned why people were still skeptical about the benefits of wood in the face of such seemingly conclusive evidence. What are we missing?


In previous commentaries and articles we have talked about the process people go through in adopting a belief or a behavior and the importance of the specific sequence of events that must occur for this to be successful.  This Awareness, Interest, Evaluation, Trial and Adoption sequence plays a critical role in political advertising and in product marketing.  This sequence also diagrams how people perceive and process any type of new information.  However, while the sequence is universal, the strategies for making the process work will almost always need to be varied for different target audiences (market segments).


The challenge the forest sector faces in trying to deliver an environmental message is that a vast majority of consumers do not purchase “wood,” they buy a specific product of which wood is a material attribute.  Consumers of siding, flooring, decking, furniture, etc. are dominantly interested in fit, form, and function (and price) rather than any intrinsic benefits of the material(s) they are made with.  It is also probable that a generic industry-wide approach that tries to sell the benefits of wood is selling the wrong thing at the wrong time. Before the forest sector can get people to “hear” an environmental message about wood they need to first convince people that the sector itself is one they can identify with and trust (Awareness stage).  People are much more likely to trust those whose values align with their own. A key part of the Awareness message must be to share those characteristics of the forest products industry that align with the concerns of the target market.


It is a common mistake by individuals that feel enmeshed in any debate to jump ahead and argue a point in detail (Evaluation step). And the more people care about an issue the more likely they are to jump ahead.  However, by skipping to this step, the opportunity to form a values alignment with the market is missed and the market is treated more like an adversary than a potential customer.  The focus ends up being on specific points of the debate, rather than the customer.   Without taking the time to make the market aware that the industry is made up of people they can identify with, all arguments (and lots of scientific data) fall on deaf ears.   The end result is that the forest sector is depersonalized and the broader public feels industry members don’t care about the environment as much as they do.  This creates frustration for both groups, especially when segments of the industry (e.g., foresters) care so much about the environmental sustainability of wood that they have committed their life to it.


So what can you do to bridge this gap?  Perhaps take a lesson from the GEICO Insurance gecko.  The purpose of the “insurance gecko” is simply to increase the public’s “awareness” of GEICO as a major insurance provider and a low-cost option.  GEICO’s marketers are using a simple image and a simple message[1] , repeated over and over by a unique messenger in a variety of situations to help a range of market segments identify with the company.  Over time, people begin to recognize the gecko to the point where marketers can start developing a deeper relationship between the company and the audience, and a more detailed message is possible.


The point here is that in order to get to the stage where people will actually listen to the science of LCA, the forest products industry has to do a better job of getting their audience to identify with the people of the industry.  When the public can imagine that the people in the industry care about the environment as much as they do, they will no longer filter out the details, scientific or otherwise, that are presented in a message.  To a certain extent the greatest story never told is that of the emotional link between the people of many forest products companies and the resource that provides their livelihood and their lifestyle.  Perhaps it is time to tell that story and the messenger may look and sound more like a lizard than a scientist.


Dr. Jeff Howe


[1]  “GEICO, 15 minutes could save you 15%”