We get it — sometimes it just feels awkward, uncomfortable, and just plain scary to address environmentalism and sustainability in our sphere of influence. What do we say? How do we start? Does it really make a difference? These are all legitimate questions, and you’re not alone in tackling them. We’re here to equip you with encouragement and practical advice so you feel ready to take on climate conversations with your friends, family, at your workplace and with your local government.
We sat down with Mia McBryde — who’s studying Environmental Conservation, certified in carbon analytics and life cycle assessment, and a public speaker on climate change adaption — to pick her brain on how to start talking about the environment and sustainability with your family.
Q: What are common barriers that you find inhibit yourself and others from talking about sustainability and the environment and meaningful changes in those areas with your family?
Habitual Patterns: Whether you live with your partner or your family, we all have household patterns that can be hard to break. People can get into the mindset of “this is the way we do things, and this way is good enough.”
Comparison: For children, one of the biggest barriers is comparing their lifestyle with what their friends, and friends’ families are doing. Your family may be making a conscious effort to eat more eco-friendly, for example, while your child may feel discouraged by their friends who do things differently. At the same time, kids can be really adaptive to new behaviours especially if it’s introduced slowly and in a fun way.
Differences in opinions, beliefs and values: In larger family structures, there can be a large spectrum of political beliefs, generations, and areas of work. This can definitely create barriers to communicating with relatives. Different generational values can add additional complexities to communicating about sustainability.
Q: Are there certain topics within sustainability and the environment that are taboo to talk about within the family? Why do you think that is?
Extractive Industries (mining, fisheries, etc.): the extractive industry can be taboo since many people make their living through these industries.
Making Drastic Changes: asking children (or really anyone) to make big changes in a short amount of time can be counterproductive, especially when the changes affect normalized routines they’ve grown up with.
Q: How can we start normalizing conversations about sustainability and the environment and meaningful changes in those areas within our family?
Add Small Changes
Integrating some actionable change into the day to day is the smoothest way to introduce environmental and sustainability conversations into your home. This could look like adding environmentally friendly activities into familial chores — like sorting through recycling, creating a compost bin or bringing bottles to the recycling depot.
Plan Eco-Friendly Activities
Try planning family events that are environmentally friendly— participating in a beach clean up, going thrift shopping, going to the store to replace single use plastics, doing upcycle crafts, and cooking plant-based meals.
Share Educational Resources
Try introducing media (like documentaries or books) to your extended family that bring forward the concept of environmentalism. For kids, there are tons of children’s books, TV shows and movies that touch on environmentalism, and can help bring up the conversation at a young age.
Lead By Example
Often when other people are doing something new, family members are interested in learning more about it. This can be a great conversation starter.
Q: Different opinions are part of being in relationship with others. How do you recommend we approach differing opinions about sustainability and the environment that our partners, kids and relatives have, especially when we disagree?
Be Respectful & Start Small
Creating a space where individuals don’t feel attacked, there’s mutual respect between both people, and individuals feel open to share their own opinions is key. Depending on your relationship with your family, there’s definitely some opportunity to gently push for new, Earth-first behaviours and patterns in the household. I’d recommend keeping them small to start especially if everyone isn’t on the same page. These small changes can make a big difference.
With Older Relatives
Keep in mind that older relatives were raised in a different social climate, and they may have been going about their life the same way for the past 50+ years. It’s important to lower your expectations (or better yet, leave your expectations at the door). Introduce ideas slowly, have compassion, listen to their perspective, and try to articulate ideas with examples or language that are relevant to them.
Bringing up ideas slowly is important for kids too. Start by making one shift a week, and make sure to communicate why these changes are happening. Try having a brainstorm session as a family: introduce a few ideas on how to live sustainably, ask for their ideas, and decide as a family what the best steps are. This way, no one will feel blindsided by these changes, plus they’ll feel empowered by their participation.
Q: What are some approachable topics within sustainability and environmentalism that we could bring up with our partners, kids and relatives to get them warmed up?
There are tons of things you can introduce within your home. For starters, take small steps to reduce plastic consumption: remove plastic baggies from your house, and encourage your kids to pick out reusable containers at the store. Remind your kids to bring a reusable water bottle (and make sure you’re leading by example).
Small shifts like using less water in the shower and while brushing teeth or teaching kids how to properly recycle can be easy things to introduce in the household and can extend into the real world and adult practices.
With Your Partner
Doing things together that promote environmentalism is a good first step — carpooling together, choosing to walk rather than drive, reducing plastics in the household or cooking together with sustainable foods. Ultimately, let your sustainable action be something that you can do while spending time together.
Once you begin to make these smaller changes, we can begin asking questions about why it’s important to do this, what more can we do, how can we engage others to practice sustainability.
Bring forward ideas where people feel empowered to make changes (not overwhelmed) — plastics, food consumption, and shopping for instance. After people start feeling empowered, try bringing up some larger topics, and discuss how you can create similar actionable change for these new concepts.
Q: What are some practical tips you have around having conversations about sustainability and the environment with your family and meaningful changes in those areas?
Make Environmentalism A Family Activity
That’s easier said than done, so encouraging the family to begin making actionable change is a great start.
Keep Each Other Accountable
Just make sure to be kind, and recognize everyone’s learning.
Making it fun is a critical part, and keeping a (loose) schedule so that children get in the pattern of certain sustainability actions.
With Your Partner
Finding tasks and activities you can do together is a great start. When people see that changing practices is possible, it may be easier to bring up more difficult conversations. Sometimes people aren’t open to making these changes, and that’s okay. Focus on introducing ideas slowly, notice what topics people are interested in and continue to pursue them (while being patient, kind and open to hearing their perspective).
Educating yourself before having any conversations is an important step, especially learning from many different people (BIPOC, women and Indigenous knowledge holders). Remember that for many people there are barriers to living sustainability — be conscientious about these barriers before chatting with them. Researching affordable ways to work towards being sustainable is a good place to start in this case.
Q: Any recommendations on how to balance the importance and urgency for sustainability and environmentalism with grace and patience with our partners, kids, and relatives?
Slow change is extremely important, and also starting to educate them as young as possible to build habits. Sometimes working slowly means more progress in the long run. Approach these topics with kindness and compassion, and remember that every step towards change is a good one.
With Your Partner
I think anyone’s habits can change if you can hold each other accountable. If you live together, you have an opportunity to hold each other to goals, celebrate your wins and have compassion when things don’t go as planned.
With The Whole Family
With all levels of family, getting involved with community initiatives can help people understand next steps to extend environmentalism past the household. Following social media accounts that provide environmental tips or watching documentaries can help your family learn from others. The more learning, the better.
Q: Do you know of any resources, organizations or initiatives that could support someone looking to bring up sustainability within the family?
Here are a few examples of some resources that can introduce your family to environmentalism. Just remember, after you introduce an idea, it’s important to have conversations about actional change as a follow-up.
- Before the Flood
- Our Planet
- A Life On Our Planet
- Racing Extinction
- Public Trust
Environmental Blogs & Creatives
- Intersectional Environmentalist
- The Good Trade
- Eco Warrior Princess
- The Environmentor
- Sedona Christina
Looking for books to read with your kids? Here are 25 books that teach children to care for the planet.
Once you’ve started making changes in your own life, there are so many opportunities to engage with local, national and international initiatives for environmental and sustainable work. Check out Canadian Environmental Network and The Canadian Network for Human Health and the Environment to find opportunities in your area.