10 Ways that Social Media and Sustainability Line Up

The mega-trends of social media and sustainability share plenty of the same DNA.

The Arnold Palmer is an exceptional beverage. It takes two individual beverages, iced tea and lemonade, each very good in their own right, and creates an even better one. That’s how we feel about social media and green living i.e. sustainability.

There is nothing inherently green about social media. The Web 2.0 revolution is driven by code and the Internet as a platform. According to Wikipedia, it describes this as a trend in “technology and web design that aims to enhance creativity, information sharing, and, most notably, collaboration among users.” This is largely a virtual world.

The move toward sustainability, on the other hand, is taking place entirely offline in the actual world. It is about balancing our impact and more wisely managing our natural resources. The United Nations describes it as commitment to “the provision of a secure environmental, social, and economic future.”

As different as they are, these two trends share one key quality: they’re changing the world for the better. They are changing politics, business, culture, and society. In the following we explore 10 ways that the trends of social media and sustainability intersect as well as align.

Special Note: Sustainablog and Max Gladwell are supporting Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C). By clicking this link and signing up for SocialVibe, once featured in our Ten Ways to Change the World Through Social Media, you’ll effectively donate $1 to the cause. We also encourage you to watch the live telecast on ABC, CBS, and NBC, September 5th, at 8:00pm ET/PT.

1. The New Politics

Barack Obama has changed political elections forever. Just as Kennedy used televised debates to his advantage in 1960, Obama has used the social web. It’s partly a function of his brand and overwhelming appeal with younger voters, but it’s also a clear sign of the times. This article in The Economist breaks down his strategies and contrasts his success with McCain. Obama’s decision to announce his VP via email and SMS is nothing short of brilliant. Not only is Obama building a massive database of emails and cell phone numbers, he’s end-running the mainstream media and going directly to the people.

We’ve also seen members of Congress increasingly embracing Twitter. One of them is Senator Joe Biden, our pick for Obama’s VP. [Obama has since picked Biden as his running mate.]

In terms of sustainability, candidates have placed renewable energy at the center of their respective energy plans. For McCain, it’s “The Lexington Project” with a call for “investing in clean, alternative sources of energy.” For Obama, it’s “New Energy for America” with the promise of “5 million green collar jobs.” Each plan addresses climate change.

What might these trends signal about the next administration? How will White House communications change in 2009, especially with Obama in the oval office? Will new cabinet-level positions be created to handle these new realities? The Secretary of Sustainability? The Social Media Director? Time will tell. What’s clear is that these two trends are playing equally significant roles in the new politics.

2. The Democratization of Information and Energy

The social web has decentralized the production and distribution of content. Technologies such as blogs, wikis, YouTube, MySpace, and Ustream have put control in the hands of people…the people formerly known as the audience. This trend is well on its way, and clean energy is following in its footsteps.

These are the people formerly known as a utility’s customers. It’s becoming increasingly more affordable and cost effective to produce our own electricity with solar and wind, not to mention maximizing efficiency and generating our own negawatts. This shift also includes community-driven efforts, driven by the Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) laws, which “allow communities to take over the role of purchasing electricity for its residents and businesses.” Local Power is working to help cities adopt CCA, specifically in San Francisco where the short-term goal is 51% green energy. According to this story in Fast Company, the utility PG&E is none to happy about it. Perhaps they could commiserate with the L.A. Times?

3. Losing the Adjectives

Because social media and sustainability are still such new trends, we rely on qualifiers to distinguish them from the norm. We refer to green products and green energy, as opposed to wasteful products and dirty energy. Blogging and online video are social media as opposed to traditional or one-way media. In each case we look forward to the day when green and social can be taken for granted. When all media is social and all products and energy are green. Then we can lose the adjectives.

4. Corporate Culture

Social media and sustainability present the same set of issues when integrating these new practices into a company’s DNA and core values. It is unclear with whom the responsibilities should reside, which departments will be involved, and what new position(s) should be created. The truth is that social media and sustainability can be integrated and adopted at every level.

A company’s story need not be the exclusive domain of the communications department. In many cases, engineers and designers can convey a company’s message better than PR reps. Marketing and customer service can benefit immensely, and the C-suite can go a long way toward humanizing a company through corporate blogging. All of which can generate significant upside in the form of brand equity, product development, research data, and much more.

In terms of sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR), these qualities start with corporate values and extend to a company’s every touch point and stakeholder. The role of Chief Sustainability Officer is being increasingly adopted, which gives this individual the necessary authority to implement policies throughout an organization.

Of course, each of these strategies is driven by return on investment. They have to make business sense. When it comes to implementing either, however, there is one guiding principle: transparency. Without it, social media and sustainability not only won’t be effective. They’ll typically blow up in your face.

5. Fast Company and Wired Magazines

The prevailing theme of these magazines is technology. Fast Company focuses on business and Wired skews toward the Internet. Web 2.0 has been a consistent topic for each since the coining of the term Web 2.0. More recently, each has devoted an increasing number of pages to sustainability.

We wrote about Wired‘s absurdist approach to global warming. This month’s cover story is “The Future of the Electric Car” featuring Better Place; a few pages away, you can find a profile on gossip blogger Perez Hilton. Fast Company once featured Adam Werbach on the cover. This month, it has to defend its frequency of green coverage. In this same issue, social-media giant MySpace makes the cover story. These magazines can’t help but to cover the nexus of social media and green living.

6. Follow the Money…in and out of Silicon Valley

It’s no secret that Kleiner Perkins made its name (and fortune) in the dotcom era on bets like Amazon, Sun, and Google. The firm has also received plenty of press for its recent cleantech bets. Fortune magazine went so far as to say that KPCB was betting the farm on green and leaving Internet deals to the competition. John Doerr admitted as much. “‘We made a very deliberate and strategic decision,’ he says with the baritone of a deejay, which he was in college. ‘We could’ve doubled down on Web 2.0, whatever that is. We didn’t.'”

However, the author of this Fortune piece updates the story in a blog post, where he says he’d be “remiss if [he] didn’t note that Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers announced, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal Wednesday, its investment in the Facebook application maker Zynga.” This is in addition to the $100 million iPhone iFund, which is inherently social.

Vice President Al Gore also joined the firm this year. The Inconvenient Truth star is a champion of battling climate change, yet he’s also co-founder of the socially driven Current.com, where citizen journalists can upload videos to the website and, following a voting process, potentially have them aired on its television-channel counterpart.

This same duality of focus and investment is playing out throughout Silicon Valley and the entire VC community. These are smart bets being made on a smart future that’s both green and social.

7. New Jobs in the Social-Green Economy

As many as 40% of the jobs awaiting today’s fourth graders have yet to be invented. That’s just a guess, but consider how far removed our work in sustainability and social media are today from what was available in, ahem, 1981. Then consider the pace at which technologies in social media and sustainability are evolving. We’ve tagged Generation Y as the first that doesn’t know a world without the Internet. The Next Generation (a term we just coined), defined by those born between 1997 and 2015, won’t know a world where social media and sustainability aren’t part of everyday life, including their careers. In many ways, they won’t even realize it.

In sustainability, we’re talking about an entirely new sector of so-called “green-collar jobs”, which can include anything from installing solar panels to the aforementioned Chief Sustainability Officer. Van Jones is a champion of the green economy as a solution to not only our energy and climate crises but poverty, outsourcing, and inequality.

In technology and social media, new roles and responsibilities are being created in marketing, public relations, and customer service. You have entire consulting firms, such as our friends at Heavybag Media, responding to the growing need for companies to communicate more directly with their customers. Jeremiah Owyang, a Forrester senior analyst specializing in social computing, frequently blogs about recruiters’ search for social media candidates. Yes, that’s two examples in one.

8. The Localization of American Culture

The era of cheap oil has lead to an unsustainable system where it is (was) economically viable to ship goods, such as vegetables and fish, all across the globe at a tremendous expense to our health, security and wellbeing. With this era coming to an end, the principles of sustainability dictate that we source our food and other goods as close to home as possible, which includes shopping at farmers’ markets and growing our own food.

This parallels the decentralization of information that’s been driven by social media and the ability to produce (grow) our own content and to become active participants in media as opposed to passive consumers. There’s an even more relevant example, though.

The Internet did for communication what cheap oil did for consumer goods. It brought the world seemingly close together. From the U.S., you could find people in New Zealand or China who shared your same interests and then build a global online community. It was liberating. And now social media has turned this on its head.

Services like Meetup and even the big social networks (Facebook and MySpace) are enabling like-minded people to find one another online with the express purpose of meeting up in the real world. In Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, he recounts how stay-at-home moms are the number-one group on Meetup. He says they are reinventing the social infrastructure of small towns and neighborhoods. Perhaps they’re getting together at the farmers’ market to do some local, organic shopping?

9. Grassroots Movements with Top-Down Results

Social media and sustainability started as grassroots movements. Whether it was co-ops for sourcing biodiesel fuel or the entrepreneurs of the social web, these mega-trends started small. They reached a point, though, where politicians and major corporations took notice and have more recently started to embrace them. Sustainability is part of Wal-Mart’s corporate culture, and social media has significantly impacted how companies like GM, Dell, and Comcast interact with their customers. Both presidential candidates use social media to its fullest, and sustainability is a platform within each campaign. Politics, business, and society will never be the same. Thanks in large part to social media and sustainability.

10. Now with the Downsides

Social media and sustainability are vehicles. Their virtues are a result of how we use them, and that may not always be for good.

Anorexia groups have sprung up on social networks like MySpace, Xanga, LiveJournal, and Facebook not to help women recover but to reinforce and support their behavior. Referred to as “pro-ana“, this is the “rejection of the idea that anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder.” We’ve also heard plenty about child predators using MySpace.

In a similar way, companies can poison the well of sustainability through greenwashing, which undermines legitimately green products and services by fostering skepticism and cynicism.

On a larger scale, though, sustainability can also succumb to zealotry, dogma, and fanaticism. It can start to emulate religion. Or we can allow government to play too large a role in pushing us toward a sustainable lifestyle. It’s not that the government has no role to play, but there is a clear line when it comes to privacy and liberty. As the political pendulum swings hard to the left, this will become a real concern.

We’ve also thought that the burgeoning carbon offset market, estimated at $1 trillion in a Fast Company article, could give rise to a new breed of third-world dictator. A valuable commodity is a valuable commodity, whether it’s oil, gold, diamonds, or CO2. If we’re going to rely on the third world to soak up all of our first-world carbon and generate huge profits in the process, it cannot be at the expense of human rights. The film “Blood Carbon” ought never to be made.

Originally published on Max Gladwell.

  1. Scott Badenoch

    absolutely incredible article…a must read for anyone in any of these spaces

    and you know the number 10 part…greenwashing…that’s a big part of why I made Creative Citizen…let the Citizen’s have their say!

    well done, Max

  2. Angela McClowry

    (link was broken in first comment) What an insightful read, summed up really well. I have just jumped from the sustainability world into social media. I too am trying to see how we use social media for good. The site I have set up is about addressing your number 4 point, corporate culture. We are trying to develop a standard for how companies integrate sustainability into core business practices. And being developed with open source software it helps break down barriers for organizations in developing countries and all small business to be more sustainable.

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