04 March 2007

"Sexy" Sustainability?

I read an article from a Seattle newspaper earlier this week describing efforts at the University of Washington campus to reduce waste by going after the paper cups used by coffee shops (Here's to a sex-cessful campaign: UW students attack paper-cup waste). One estimate has the campus disposing of over 5,000 paper cups per day.

In an effort to entice students to bring their own coffee cups instead of using the paper cups, student leaders from the Young Democrats launched a campaign to make being environmentally friendly more fashionable. This week, the campaign was launched complete with bumper stickers & buttons displaying the catchy, alliterative slogan, "Sustainability is Sexy". While I am all for reducing waste, I question the means by which this particular student group is going about it.

This is not the first eco-friendly movement to use sex to attract attention to a good cause. The article cites examples of using sex to raise money to save rainforests, endangered turtles, and keep people from buying fur. The general idea, states the article, is to move from using guilt as a motivator to do the right thing to making the idea "more attractive and fun".

Sex is used to sell everything from cologne to cars to anti-wrinkle cream. What makes using sex to market toward waste reduction any different? Finding ways to inspire students to reduce their waste is admirable, but (and perhaps I am being a prickly idealist here) the whole idea of using sex to sell it leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. Most marketing campaigns are geared toward getting people to buy or consume something; it seems ironic to use sex to market toward environmental consciousness which tends to be more anti-consumptive in nature.

The catchy slogan and free bumper stickers may garner student attention for the time being, but what will happen once the hype dies down? If being fashionable or hip is the motivation for forgoing the paper cup and replacing it with one of the stainless steel coffee tumblers ubiquitous to coffee shops these days, what will happen when the trend shifts? Sex may be drawing attention toward the issue for the time being, but is anyone learning why waste reduction is important, how incinerated trash affects our atmosphere, or learning to look at other areas in which they can reduce consumption?

The motivation behind this campaign may not be so global in its intent, but where better than a university to foster this kind of awareness? I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater and I do believe that change starts with seemingly small, personal decisions and shifts in habit (like forgoing a paper coffee cup), but I also believe that what drives that decision is significant as well.

It seems that in a university setting, awareness would be raised by listening to subject matter experts, viewing documentaries, acquiring relevant information, and encouraging discussion and debate. This is not to say that creativity should not be used in how students are engaged, but that the creative approach should appeal to their intelligence & sense of social responsibility instead of their sexuality. Rather than encouraging students to embrace an ecologically conscious lifestyle intelligently, it is being reduced to a mere trend. It seems that if the end in mind is to persuade students to have a heightened awareness about waste reduction, it would be helpful if they were given justifiable reasons for doing so.

Instead of consciousness-raising, they’re taking a shortcut to waste reduction by slapping a “sexy” sticker on it. If anything, it is consciousness-numbing, catering to the lowest common denominator of human intelligence. As can be expected of our culture, people are flocking to what is “sexy” for now. When the novelty has faded, how many will still be favoring the reusable mugs over the disposable paper cups, and of those who still do, how many will remember why? Sustainable may be sexy for now, but sexy is hardly sustainable. Last time I checked, intelligent living is.

I encourage you to share your own thoughts!

For more information…

“Earth Appreciation”: A Shameless Plug
I believe one of the first steps in encouraging people to embrace more ecologically-conscious lifestyles is to appreciate and be amazed by God’s creation.

For some earth appreciation, check out Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth”, an 11-part miniseries 5 years in the making, shot completely in high definition. It will be airing beginning March 25 @ 8 p.m. Eastern/Pacific and is available to purchase on DVD if you are unable to catch it on TV.

Check out Blue Mountain Mama's thoughts on sustainability here.


  1. to start, I AM so excited about the "planet earth" series. it looks absolutely breathtaking and awe-inspiring. and i'm glad you posted the time and date, b/c i wasn't sure when it started.

    and i am amazed (or maybe "appalled" is a better word) at what it takes sometimes to get people interested in taking care of this world. you brought up some very good points about this "Sexy" campaign. it is a great shame that to get people's attention, you have to market it in this way.... instead of to their intellect, as you said. i also think of situations like in Sudan and Darfur.... where a genocide crisis has been going on for years. Christians had been trying to bring awareness to this and tried to get the government to step in, but it wasn't until celebrities started speaking out about it that something got done. and now there are even "trendy" t-shirts for it.

    it doesn't bode well and say very much about what our priorities are in America. but, it does start with personal change. and there is hope if, one by one, we all start making those lifestyle changes in our lives....and hopefully inspire others as well. thanks for bringing awareness to this....it DOEs look like we have been on the same wave-length lately. Fred First, who won my caption contest is a great advocate for environmentally sound practices and he celebrates Creation and this beautiful earth in his writings....mostly about the valley that surrounds him and the "small" things in nature that lie right outside his door. you should check out his blog...and peruse through the photos- amazing!

  2. We really are on the same wavelength, aren't we? I almost said something to that effect when I left a comment on your blog this morning - hearing your thoughts & reflections on sustainability made me go, "Oooh! Oooh! I wrote about it too!".

    I agree with you on how sad it is that it takes sex and/or celebrity to draw attention to issues these days; it's tragic and it's definitely a reflecting of where our culture is at as a whole. It's just sad.

    Thanks for pointing out Fred's blog. I will definitely be checking that out. It is encouraging to meet other Christians who see caring for the earth as a responsibility God has given us.

    As always, thanks for stopping by. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts & feedback!

  3. kirsten- thought you might be interested in fred first's post today: http://namelesscreek.blogspot.com/2007/03/northern-civilzations-are-melting.html

  4. As one of the founder's of Sustainability Is Sexy, thanks for taking note of my project! It's great to see people are interested in my efforts to cut down on waste, pollution, etc.

    Reusable coffee cups are great for a lot of reasons. They keep your coffee hot all day, you often get a discount when you fill it up, and there's the "green" stuff too.

    So why doesn't everyone use a reusable cup? The simple answer is that people just don't know how wasteful a disposable habit is. That calls for education! But before coffee drinkers can be educated, their attention needs to be grabbed! I grad attention through bright colors, flashy posters, and a sexy slogan.

    It's not sex that sells a product. Sex grabs attention, but if the product isn't a good one, it won't sell. Luckily, our coffee cup belief is a great product.

    Our project is ongoing. Check out www.SustainabilityIsSexy.com for updates. And keep drinking responsibly!