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How Environmentalists Can Respond to Americans' Need for Personal Space


While reading about social science and environmental communication, I’ve noticed a gap between how environmentalists in the United States view personal space and how their audiences perceive it. If environmentalists tell audiences not to "say ‘eww’ to thrift stores," avoid public transit, or live in suburbs, they may encounter resistance—not because their audiences are opposed to sustainable choices, but because they value personal space.

Instead of overlooking personal space issues, environmentalists should address them constructively. Understanding the way United States audiences respond to these questions could transform the way we design eco-friendly housing, products and communities.

If environmentalists fail to respond to these issues, apathy is one likely outcome. Suzanne Shelton, the CEO of an environmental marketing organization, writes  that "gas may hit $10/gallon and folks may still want to live in the suburbs... because it’s more serene/away from the hustle and bustle."

Although market research participants may see environmental actions as morally positive , they may or may not integrate these actions into their lives—especially if other issues, like the economy, are on their minds.

In personal conversations, I often see the value of developing answers to these questions. Some of my friends and family drive frequently despite my attempts to persuade them to use public transit.

When Concordia marketing professor Zeynep Arsel  interviewed me about thrift shops and clothing exchanges, she acknowledged that another personal space issue—hygiene concerns—can interfere with sustainable behavior.

Although social distance has some undesirable effects  on communities, it also gives people the space they may expect or require. If someone is allergic to perfume, is it reasonable to ask her to take public transit daily? Expecting people who have spent their lives surrounded by lawns and picket fences to adapt to life in Manhattan may be somewhat naive.

Fortunately, environmentalists can respond to this problem upfront by altering their approaches to marketing and design. Recognizing personal space as a valid concern is an essential step toward developing solutions.

1. If you are promoting clothing reuse, look into the reasons people may object to buying products secondhand. Washing clothing and testing electronics are two pragmatic responses. Transaction ratings could improve the reliability of sites such as Craigslist.  

2. If you are encouraging people to move from single-family homes to apartments, how can you take personal space into account? Soundproofing and visual privacy could make apartment living easier for people who have lived in larger homes.

3. If people are avoiding public transit or bicycle use, cities can improve safety in stations and parking lots, reduce the rate of bicycle accidents, and take other steps to make public spaces more welcoming.

One clear message which emerges from social marketing is that environmentalists can’t expect the people we are trying to reach to share our views. What is a fun thrift shopping outing for me may be an awkward or even unpleasant experience for someone who buys everything new.

Washing secondhand clothes doesn’t dilute environmental messages about reuse and recycling. Giving people privacy in their homes and a sense of safety in public spaces could make it much easier to promote high-density, sustainable urban living.

Image credits: Street photo by mrjamin


About the Author: Katherine Friedrich has a graduate degree from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Half of her coursework was in journalism. She has done research on energy-efficient behavior and diversity-conscious science communication. Currently, she lives in Boston, uses Twitter  regularly, and blogs at Science Is Everyone’s Story . She has written about diversity-related environmental issues for newspapers, magazines and other publications. 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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