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 has spoken publicly on climate change adaption — to pick her brain on how to start talking about the environment and sustainability with your friends.
Q: What are common barriers that you find inhibit yourself and others from talking about sustainability and the environment with your friends?
What Our Friends Think: when we don’t know where our friends stand on certain topics, it can be nerve-wracking to bring it up — we want to make sure we’re maintaining our relationships and not offending anyone.
Differing Opinions: some people are concerned about getting into a disagreement, or feel like the conversation won’t go anywhere because they know that they hold a drastically different opinion than their friends.
It’s Intimidating: personally, I struggled bringing up environmentalism with friends because I didn’t know where to start, or felt like I wasn’t enough of an expert on these subjects to have such important discussions. Spoiler: the truth is we’re all learning, and we don’t need to be experts!
At first these conversations can be uncomfortable because people can feel guilty about their current action, and get defensive. Ultimately I think that these barriers can be mediated by people going into these conversations with kindness, respect and compassion.
Q: Are there certain topics within sustainability and the environment that are taboo to talk about in social circles? Why do you think that is?
These include fisheries, forestry and mining. Lots of people make a living and support their families through these industries. Financial dependency on these fields can naturally cause people to be protective.
Even if people aren’t actively participating in these extractive industries, they’re often a massive source of money for the larger scale economy. Any time economics comes into the picture, the conversation about environmentalism becomes more complex.
In extractive businesses (and many more industries) there’s a lot of controversy surrounding land rights, especially between government and Indigenous communities. We see this a lot in British Columbia, Canada because the land is unceded territory — this means that there aren’t signed land treaties between Indigenous communities and the government. This complicates land ownership, and creates more controversy within extractive industries.
Another controversial topic is carbon taxing or other related environmental taxing. Many people are really protective about where their money goes and are worried about any increases in tax, environmentally conscious or not.
Human-Caused Climate Change
In some circles, the idea that the human population is responsible for a significant amount of climate change is extremely taboo. The controversy on this topic often comes from inaccurate information in the media, or from individual fear of the changing climate. People can deny human produced climate change because they feel powerless, they don’t want to make any changes in their patterns of behaviour, or because they’re scared and don’t know where to start.
Q: How can we start normalizing conversations about sustainability and the environment within our social circles?
Start With Small Steps
Begin the conversation by paving the way for others — talk about a sustainable action you’ve tried that others can also do. By offering ideas that other people can participate in, you can start to talk about the problem you’re confronting through this action, and why this action is important. By framing it according to actionable tasks, it makes people feel less powerless and more inclined to continue participating in environmental discussions.
Create Structured Settings
Beginning with some structured chats can be a great first step to normalize climate conversations. It could be a monthly book club where you read environmental material, or set up a group chat where members take turns sending something they’ve learned about the environment every day. By creating this mutual conversation where everyone is participating — rather than one person telling others how to act — people can feel empowered to discuss and practice sustainability.
By starting with these (loose) structures, people can start to feel more comfortable bringing up environmentalism and sustainability in everyday scenarios.
Encourage Each Other
It’s really important to congratulate each other for the work you’re doing. Beginning a journey towards being more sustainable can be a lot of work, and feel intimidating. Supporting one another will encourage everyone to continue having these discussions and taking action.
Q: Different opinions are part of being in relationship with others. How do you recommend we approach differing opinions about sustainability and the environment, especially when we disagree?
Know That Disagreement Is Normal: I think disagreeing about these topics is totally okay and normal, and the most important thing is having mutual respect with the person you are having the conversation with.
Learn From Others: there is certainly incredible room to learn from other people, and reflect on your own personal opinions or understandings when you disagree with others.
Go In Without Expectations: the conversations you have won’t necessarily change someone’s opinion, and I don’t think that should necessarily be the goal. Entering the conversation with an open mind, trying to provide a new perspective on things, and learning from other people’s viewpoint without valuing one person’s ideas over the others is the best way to go.
Stay Humble & Kind: these discussions can be frustrating and difficult at times, especially when you feel passionate and invested in the topic. Staying humble and kind, providing others with a space to speak, and avoiding attacking another individual’s opinions are extremely important.
Q: What are some approachable topics within sustainability and environmentalism that we could bring up in our social circles to get them warmed up?
Ethical Food Consumption
Whether diet is a touchy subject for us or not, it’s been proven that the food industry has a huge influence on land use, water use, carbon emissions, and more. Encouraging friends to explore plant-based eating, consume less meat, and buy locally sourced food are an excellent starting points.
Plus, you can easily turn this into an activity to do with friends — having a meatless potluck or a group trip to the farmers market to buy locally sourced foods.
Single Use Plastics
There are tons of accessible options to reduce plastic consumption. Starting the discussion in a place where people feel like there’s some opportunity to make actionable change is a great way to keep people feeling empowered in their environmental journey!
The Good Trade has a ton of incredible resources on sustainable products. Shopping from sustainable brands (like tentree!), buying second hand, and creating a capsule wardrobe are other ideas you can bring up in your social circle.
In these conversations, it’s a great idea to bring up a few different topics, see where individuals have the most interest and run with that. When people are engaged by an idea, they’re more likely to want to participate in changing their behaviours, learning more about the topic and talking about it with friends.
Q: Do you know of any resources, organizations or initiatives that could support someone looking to bring up sustainability with your friends?
- The Good Trade: an excellent accessible blog that discusses all things sustainability, including fashion, beauty products, home, food and drinks.
- The Environmentor: tentree’s blog has a ton of great educational content on the environment, and sustainable action ideas (we didn’t pay her to say that, we promise).
- Intersectional Environmentalist: focuses on how racial, environmental, class and gender equality need to work together, and is a critical resource to have an inclusive understanding of environmentalism.
- Canadian Environmental Network, The Canadian Network for Human Health and the Environment: great resources to find out about environmental groups and associations in your area.
I think finding local organizations is always a great way to participate in environmental activism work with your friends.
Q: What are some practical tips you have around having conversations about sustainability and the environment with your friends?
Take Small Steps To Make Big Change: it’s important to remember that environmentalism is a huge topic, and focusing on smaller, more manageable components is a great place to start.
Be Kind and Patient: being humble, compassionate, and admitting what you don’t know are extremely important — none of us have all the answers.
Lead By Example: share what you’ve been doing, and encourage others to try similar or new things.
Keep Barriers & Privilege In Mind: many people face barriers to living sustainability. Remember to be conscientious of these barriers before chatting with others. Looking for affordable ways to work towards sustainable living could be a great conversation starter.
Educate Yourself On A Diversity Of Perspectives: these conversations are most productive when we all do our homework and try our best to learn from a diversity of perspectives, including those held by Indigenous and BIPOC peoples. Much environmental destruction, as well as conservation initiatives, have led to racialized controversy and have disproportionately affected lower income, racialized bodies. Learning from diverse perspectives is an important step on the journey towards sustainability.
Build A Community Of Learning: when everyone begins to dedicate some time to learning about sustainability and environmentalism, they’ll discover topics that excite, interest or anger them — all of which have the potential to spark great conversations.
Looking for some conversation starters? We have information on the environmental impact of professional sports, a guide to composting, and harmful chemicals found in household cleaners (and what to use instead).