Combating Climate Change with Culture Change: How You Can Help Create a Sustainable Movement


Climate change is happening, it’s our fault, and the consequences are worse than most of us can bear to contemplate on a daily basis. We have already increased global mean temperatures by 1°C above pre-industrial levels. If we hit 2°C, we can expect to see an ocean free of coral, an Arctic free of ice, tens of millions of people displaced by nearly a meter of sea level rise, and hundreds of millions kept in poverty due to ever-intensifying extreme weather [1]. With current emission trends, we’re not on track to achieve even that bleak outcome.

At this point in the conversation, I normally get the question, “But what can I do?”

I know well the overtones of despair in that question. The scale of the problem is global, and the scale of a single person’s actions doesn’t seem to measure up. And that’s exactly the logic behind my suggestion: direct your choices to create a sustainable culture.

We need to make the sustainable option the default. We need to reshape our patterns of behaviour and our priorities to put sustainability at the top. When the public consensus shifts, the largest institutions can shift, too — and quickly.

Here is an example of how this works:

I currently work for Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, which makes Acuvue brand contact lenses. The company introduced the first disposable contact lens in 1988, which represented a step-change in the product material and production technology. The company has continued to release new products and significantly expand production throughput; but for over 20 years the packaging, a polypropylene blister too small for conventional recycling equipment, has remained essentially the same – until the Summer of the Straw.

In the first half of 2018, it seemed that everyone was talking about plastic. This groundswell of opposition to the once-pervasive plastic straws raised the spectre of EU-wide legislation banning single-use plastics. Around this time, the Acuvue Twitter page started to see a sharp uptick in the number of posts about its non-recyclable packaging. A group of us in J&J Vision Care already were working on a sustainability strategy for the brand, but we had struggled to get traction with senior leadership. When it became a public relations risk, we got their attention. We used the focus to launch a recycling program for the packaging in the UK and to allocate an R&D resource to develop a less plastic-intensive design.

Yes, we had a group of people who cared about sustainability internally, but the company gave us the green light because of the external pressure and the popular movement against plastic.

So how can you create a movement? Here are some concrete steps that you can take, as well as some ideas to scale the impact in your community or your organization.

(1) Reduce the number of flights you take

Why it matters: The average American has a monthly carbon footprint of about 1.5 tons of CO2 [2]. A round-trip economy flight from Seattle to Boston is 1.1 tons [3]. If you take that flight business class, it’s 3.2 tons – that is, more than two months’ of emissions in 12 hours.

What you can do:

Good – Offset offsetting your carbon emissions through a program like the Gold Standard [4].

Better – Downgrade your fare. Business class on intercontinental flights takes up a much larger share of the plane, which translates to a 3-4x increase in carbon footprint.

Best – Look for opportunities to avoid the trip and telecommute instead.

How you can scale your impact: Set policies at your work to reduce business travel and offset any required flights. Make a public commitment to reducing travel (or offsetting), and talk with your connections about the impact of flying.

(2) Eat vegetarian or vegan

Why it matters: Going vegetarian one day a week for a year saves the same amount of greenhouse gas as cutting out 1,160 miles of driving [5]. Cow products are particularly carbon-intensive because the bovine digestive system releases methane, which is 28 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

What you can do:

Good – Figure out meals when you can downsize your carbon footprint, like switching from beef to chicken, fish, or plant-based protein like soy, lentils, or beans. A popular starting place is celebrating “Meatless Monday”.

Better – Cheese is another carbon-intensive food, emitting 13.5 kg of CO2 per kg, compared with 6.9 kg for chicken. It’s even more intensive than pork, which lands at 12.1 kg CO2! [6]

Best – The ideal diet from a carbon perspective is plant-based, with an emphasis on local seasonal products (otherwise your food is consuming air miles, too!) Of course, nobody gets a prize for being 100% vegan 100% of the time. It’s about looking for opportunities to improve.

How you can scale your impact: When you’re hosting, cook a vegetarian meal. When you’re going out, pick vegetarian or vegan restaurants. Encourage your work cafeteria to beef up (har har) the vegetarian options. Normalize the idea that a meal can be delicious, satisfying, and balanced even without animal protein at the center.

(3) Make sustainability part of the conversation in your community

Why it matters: Company leaders and elected officials may not always respond to the proverbial Twitter feed; but they certainly won’t know about the changing norms in the community and the world unless someone speaks out.

What you can do:

Good – Vote with your dollar — when consumers direct their spending towards more sustainable products, companies react.

Better – Vote in all elections. A lot of important policy is decided at the local level–for example, building codes that require certain efficiency levels, zoning restrictions around greenspace, funding decisions related to public transportation infrastructure, etc., and local elections can hinge on a few handfuls of votes.

Best – Let companies and politicians know the basis of your choice. Attend town halls, and question your leaders on their environmental policy. Help them understand that sustainability is a priority.

How you can scale your impact: Mobilize your community. Educate your family, friends, and neighbors on the environmental issues at stake, and encourage them to vote accordingly.

I hope these suggestions replace some degree of despair with a feeling of empowerment. Remember: the current climate crisis arose through millions of individual actions accumulating over decades. The solution, then, requires even more individual actions linked together to create a more sustainable world.

About the Author

Amy has been shaping her career for positive environmental impact since high school. Her career began in an environmental consulting firm focusing on hazardous waste remediation projects, but she soon realized a more proactive approach could have better outcomes for both industry and the environment. The Leaders for Global Operations program offered the opportunity to tackle problems earlier, when operations focus with a sustainability lens can create value while developing a more sustainable company. While at LGO, she pursued the Sustainability Certificate and completed an internship with Quest Diagnostics focused on reducing in-process waste through an improved maintenance program. Upon graduation, she joined Johnson & Johnson because of their Credo: a statement of company values that places the community and the environment above shareholders. She has completed a rotational program within the company’s supply chain, including managing a supply chain restructuring project across three continents, and currently leads the operations services team for a new product launch in Ireland. At every step, she aims to bring the perspective of sustainability to help drive the change she wants to see in the world.