Green persuasion: a little positive peer pressure just, might help save the planet

A year ago this month, as a senior at Forest Hill Community High School in West Palm Beach, Fla., Frankie Catalfumo had an idea. “I wanted to raise money for the Everglades,” recalls Frankie. “So I started A Walk on the Green Side,” a fund-raising and awareness event.

Located on the southern tip of Florida, the Everglades wilderness area is home to an amazing array of plants and animals, many of which are endangered. A Walk on the Green Side, says Catalfumo, involves walkers doing laps around his high school’s track. Sponsors pay for every mile the walkers go, and the money goes toward buying trees to reforest the Everglades.

Staging an environmental fund-raiser–especially from scratch–is a difficult job. The biggest challenge for Catalfumo was getting the word out. He needed walkers, sponsors, and volunteers, and as far as he could tell, few people shared his passion for saving the environment. For his walk to be a success, he’d need to get creative.

His solution? A little peer pressure–of the positive kind. Catalfumo, who’s now 19, created a visual display that “showed how much of the Everglades we’ve lost … and I just stood in public places and informed people about the issue,” he says. “I told them how we’ve chopped down the trees to grow sugarcane and that we’re basically destroying everything out there-that it used to be 4.1 million acres, and now we’re looking at a third of that, and that’s only because it’s been preserved by a park.”

His presentation, he says, was impossible to ignore: “When someone said they couldn’t go or could only make it for 30 minutes and didn’t think it was worth it, I’d say, ‘Thirty minutes–you could walk a mile, maybe two, and it’s all money we didn’t have before.'” On the day of the walk, it rained. Still, says Catalfumo, 50 people showed up, and the event was a hit. “A lot of people were surprised,” he admits. “We raised $2,000 and bought a hundred trees.” And it doesn’t end there: Catalfumo, who’s now a student at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, hopes to duplicate A Walk on the Green Side there.

Really Time

If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, consider following Catalfumo’s lead: Recruit others to your favorite environmental cause, and tap the “power of many” to help save the planet. Organize a group to clean your local beach or park. Launch a campaign to reduce community energy usage. Rally friends to speak out about waterpollution and the things people can do to fight it.

As Catalfumo discovered, many young people are worried about the environment. Almost 70 percent of teens surveyed by the research company Generate say they care about environmental issues and want to get more involved. The problem is, many (37 percent) don’t know how and almost half (48 percent) think the issues are so big and so daunting that their efforts won’t result in real change.

Your job, then, is to get your peers on board. And a great way to do that, according to Noah Goldstein, a social psychologist and coauthor of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, is through positive peer influence. “There are certain things you can say to people to … [encourage] pro-environmental behaviors,” says Goldstein, who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. For example, in one study, researchers placed smiley faces on the utility bills of home owners who used less electricity than their neighbors; the smiles resulted in conservation. Give people the tools, support, and encouragement they need, and they’ll most likely join you in your cause.

Follow Their Lead

Cara C., copresident of the Go Green Club at the Denver School of Science and Technology, knows about “green” pressure. The club is all about encouraging others to chip in and save the planet. “We do presentations about what you can do to help the environment, like using energy-efficient lightbulbs, shutting the door to keep your air conditioning and heating bills lower, simple things like that,” Cara, 16, explains. “We also have bright-green billboard-type shirts to let people know we’re around, to raise interest in what we’re doing.”

Laying out the facts, says Cara, is the key to green persuasion–and to her club’s mission. “It takes a certain amount of, ‘If you do this, you’re saving this much rain forest, or if you do this, you’ll save the whales,'” she explains. “You have to be convincing.”

At the same time, Cara always tries to stay upbeat–something Goldstein suggests is critical to green persuasion. “Don’t go out and tell people they’re horrible at something, like recycling, so they need to change,” he says. The negative tone and guilt might discourage them from doing what you want them to do–for example, sorting out the paper and plastic.

Recycling, in fact, is a major Go Green initiative, says Cara. Thanks to the club’s new school-wide recycling program, most students, but not all, have made recycling a habit. And for those who resist? Cara says she and her friends do their best not to sound like the eco-police. “If we see someone throw paper in the trash, we’ll say something–like, ‘Hey, could you please put that in the recycling bin?’ But we always do it in a nice, friendly way.” And they definitely avoid the guilt-trips, according to Cara: “You don’t want to be annoying.”

Ally M., 17, a Los Angeles student who founded the Green Youth Movement to spread the word about global warming, agrees that teaching green measures in a friendly way is the best strategy. Her efforts began at home–she persuaded her parents to install solar panels on their house–and continue today in elementary school classrooms around her city. “I go in and talk for five or 10 minutes and break down global warming into something they can relate to,” she says. “And then I have them pledge to change one thing about their lifestyle”–to drink tap water, for instance, instead of bottled water. “They sign a pledge sheet, and they take it home, where they can post it on their fridge. I’m not trying to get them to change their whole life at such a young age,” Ally says. Instead, following the advice of experts such as Goldstein, she’s asking them to make small but meaningful changes that are relatively easy to adjust to.” “I am teaching them to make a difference.”


Peer pressure can be effective, but remember to keep it positive. Some tips from Noah Goldstein, a social psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and coauthor of Yes/50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive:

  • Have people sign a petition in support of your cause. Keep your list of signatures visible to newcomers. When they see that their peers support saving the planet, they’ll sign it too.
  •  Ask people directly whether they would commit to your cause. “If they say yes, it’s more of a public, active commitment,” says Goldstein. Combine their yeses with their signatures, and you have them in the bag.
  • KEEP IT VOLUNTARY. “When you provide incentives;’ notes Goldstein, “like a nickel for every can recycled, [people may participate] during your campaign, but it probably won’t last.” Chances are they’re doing it for the money (or the free T-shirt), not because they really care.
  • SHARE THE LOVE. Give your approval to those who are already doing the right thing. Positive reinforcement ensures that they’ll keep it up.

Think About It …

Besides raising environmental awareness, what are some other situations in which peer pressure can be a good thing?

Key Points

1. Many teens worry about environmental issues, but not many feel they can help.

2. Positive peer pressure can be a good tool to motivate others in support of a cause.

3. Aim to educate and inspire those you want to rally.

4. Small and easy lifestyle changes can make a difference in people’s eco-footprints.

Critical Thinking

Besides raising environmental awareness, what are some other situations in which peer pressure can be a good thing?

Extension Activity

Choose an environmental issue. Then split the class into groups and have each choose a different way of recruiting supporters–for example, a poster campaign, a petition, a letter in the school newspaper, or an announcement on the public address system. Design and distribute a simple survey to learn which method was most effective.

One Comment

  1. […] When you were a child, you probably learned the three R s: reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. But your generation is more likely to think of the three R’s as reduce, reuse, and recycle. And that’s for good reason. The planet you’ve inherited is not, shall we say, in pristine shape, because of decades of choices that other people have made. But today, it’s up to you: What choices can you make to help improve the state of the planet? […]

    December 9, 2014

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