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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 9 Numbers 2, 3, 4 1999

Environmental Messages


Kym M. Madden
Queensland University of Technology
Brisbane, Australia

    Abstract.  This chapter presents an Australian study using Sense-Making Methodology to explore the experiences of urban householders with public communication campaign messages to use environmentally friendly products, to reduce energy usage and to recycle, compost, and otherwise reduce household waste. Household consumption activities are associated with the degradation of ecological functions and overall environmental sustainability. Sense-Making Methodology provided a general methodological frame for the study and a particular way of interviewing and analyzing data. Forty householders living in Brisbane, Queensland, were interviewed in depth and data analyzed qualitatively for general patterns of experience with environmental messages. Findings offer insight into the kind of confusions experienced by householders regarding environmental issues, what information they wanted about protecting the environment, and the usefulness of information they got. In brief, the Sense-Making approach offered a fruitful way of listening to how respondents saw themselves intersecting with environmental campaign messages and identified a range of issues that environmental campaigns must address to reach this vital stakeholder group.

This study employed Sense-Making Methodology to explore how individuals experience environmental public communication campaign messages. In Australia, as in other countries, environmental problems are increasingly impacting upon the social, political, and economic agendas of communities, influencing elections and policy making (Dollery & Wallis, 1997; Gooch, 1996). Despite growing attention to environmental isues, however, the answer to the question of how individuals respond to environtmental issues is not well understood (Wagner, 1997 ). Concern for the environment, to "save the earth," as it were, has spawned a diverse range of public communication campaigns aimed at increasing awareness of environmental issues and changing community behavior. Indeed, maintaining public interest in environmental issues is needed for solutions to be found ( McComas & Shanahan, 1999). Despite scientific claims, social problems like the environment must still be sold (Ungar, 1998).

In Australia, "save the environment" messages are sent mainly by government bodies at the local, state, and federal levels, although a range of not-for-profit, lobbying, and commercial organizations also see merit in implementing campaigns themselves. For example, the Clean-up Australia campaign promotes rubbish collection by communities nationwide to help the environment; the Queensland Government's Department of Environment & Heritage promotes the message "Reduce, re-use, recycle" intensively to schools and the wider community; the Brisbane City Council promotes recycling to householders to reduce the city's waste. Wilderness and conservation organizations, as well as shops selling environmentally friendly products, also promote "save the environment" messages in their merchandising and packaging.

Further, the media indirectly support environmental campaign messages. For example, television, radio and newspapers reinforce environmental themes in their promotions and story selections. While the environment has moved onto the main media agenda in recent decades (Roberts, 1996), media messages about environmental problems have not always been consistent, however. Other issues challenge media attention, and coverage of environmental issues has fluctuated (McComas & Shanahan, 1999).

The diversity of organizations producing messages under the thematic umbrella of protecting the environment produces a mix of information about the environment. The situation is further complicated because many aspects of environmental degradation are abstract to individuals; people may not personally experience problems themselves but rely upon the mass media to understand environmental risks (Gooch, 1996).

This study considers the overall impact of environmental campaign messages for a key campaign "audience": householders. This stakeholder group is important because environmental problems are linked, at least partly, to domestic consumption patterns (Noorman & Uiterkamp, 1998). Householder behavior targeted by environmental campaigns may include:

Purchase decisions. Householders are encouraged to choose products made without fluorocarbons, naturally based rather than chemically based, that use less processing and with less packaging, and to use fewer plastic carry bags when shopping.

Waste disposal. Householders are encouraged to reuse products within the home, participate in community recycling efforts, and compost used vegetable matter.

Consumption of essential services. Householders are encouraged to reduce consumption of water, electricity, and gas in the home.

While such campaigns are commonly geared to changing individual behavior, they may be coupled with changes in environmental policy and improved community infrastructure. For example, the Brisbane City Council introduced curbside recycling in 1993, in conjunction with its campaign promoting domestic recycling. However, policymaking in Australia has not necessarily been consistent with environmental goals, and there is "a plethora of inchoate and frequently conflicting [environmental] policies" (Dollery & Wallis, 1997, p. 299).

This aside, however, it is important to ask what environmental public communication campaigns are achieving. How might they be improved? While there is evidence that some householder behavior has altered to become more "green," there is evidence to show that behavior has not matched environmental concern (Roberts, 1996; Wagner, 1997). Further, little research is available that addresses the subject from the householders' perspective. Thus this study seeks to use the Sense-Making approach to qualitatively explore householders' overall experiences of environmental campaign messages. In particular, how do householders perceive the environment and the notion of environmental responsibility? Are they getting the kinds of information they want from campaigns?

Approaches to Campaign Research

The bulk of research that informs campaigns conceptualizes communication as a one-way transmission of information from an institution to a targeted audience through the mass media, and much attention is given to the optimum packaging of the message (Gooch, 1996; Morehead & Penman, 1989; Rakow, 1989). However, this simple linear approach to campaign design has been criticized on several fronts.

First, this approach tends to treat campaign information as truths transcending time and circumstance and having value in and of itself (Dervin, 1989; Rakow, 1989). This ignores the importance of subjectivity in human meaning-making; even scientific observations reflect the researchers' own experiences and physical capacity. It is essential for campaign information to engage personal understandings and values if it is to be useful (Gooch, 1996). Specifically, "green" behavior change, in particular, is a highly complex phenomenon anchored in individuals' cognitive understanding (Wagner, 1997).

Secondly, the traditional approach emphasizes message transmission: how well messages reach audiences (Dervin, 1982, 1989). However, despite being a common indicator of success, message penetration or recall does not guarantee change of attitude or behavior (Morehead & Penman, 1989). Campaign planners may also devote considerable time, effort, and public moneys exploring variables associated with the acceptance of campaign messages, but this, too, is limited in what it tells us about campaigns. McGuire (1989, p. 44), for example, outlines various theoretical approaches that help provide checklists "for analyzing and improving the effectiveness of existing campaigns." However, such a focus on the packaging of public messages can overlook the kind of information that has most value and relevance for individuals. If campaigns are to guide householders towards environmentally friendly behavior, research needs to examine how individuals see their situations and identify the cognitive barriers to change (Wagner, 1997).

For some time, researchers have called for closer attention to the meaning of campaign information for audiences (Dervin, 1982, 1989; Morehead & Penman, 1989). Such calls reflect a larger shift in communication scholarship to conceptualize communication as human interaction involving a creative process of constructing meaning (Ang, 1991; Dervin, 1989; Morley, 1989). This concern for the subjective negotiation of "facts" presented by campaigns underpins this study. Specifically, it seeks to explore the relevance and value attached to campaign messages to "save the environment" for householders.

Theoretical Framework for this Study

Sense-Making Methodology was chosen as a general theoretical approach and a way of interviewing and analyzing data in this study because it redefines more equitably the power in the relationship between "audiences" and information source (Dervin, 1989). Sense-Making de-objectifies individuals by attempting to listen to audiences in their own terms, without imposing content priorities on them (Dervin & Dewdney, 1986). Respondents in this study were free to discuss as they wanted their experiences with environmental campaign messages. At the same time, the meta-theory allows for a systematic exploration of processes that affect all humans: how individuals make sense of their experiences (Dervin, 1989).

Using the Sense-Making approach, this study asked respondents to think of a situation relating to "being environmentally friendly" where they experienced a confusion or block or barrier (conceptualized by the researcher as "the gap faced"). They were then asked to recount this situation step by step, to explain what they did to get an answer or resolution to that gap (conceptualized by the researcher as making "a bridge" by the forming of ideas, obtaining of resources, or otherwise taking action). Finally, they were asked about the ways in which the answer assisted them (conceptualized as uses or helps gained from answers). Thus, respondents' perceptions of situations they faced and how they addressed discontinuities in these situations were systematically tapped. Sense-Making Methodology provided the process (represented by the Sense-Making metaphor) by which the researcher drew out respondents' own stories of how they coped in those situations. That is, the method offered a way for respondents to "circle" around their own experience (Dervin, 1989, 1992).


Forty in-depth interviews were conducted by the researcher with householders living in Brisbane, Queensland, in late 1993. Respondents were chosen for gender and income diversity, but not to represent the wider population as statistical generalization was not the goal of this study. To ensure respondents with different incomes were included in this study, an arbitrary figure of AUD$60,000 for total annual household income was used to distinguish households of higher or lower income (as reported by respondents). Equal numbers of respondents in "high" or "low" income households were then interviewed. As well, respondents interviewed were a mix of male and female respondents. Thus of the 40 respondents, 10 were female heads or co-heads of high-income households; ten were males in high-income households, ten were females in low-income households, and ten were males in low-income households.

The sampling method used in the study was changed to achieve higher response rates. Initially, the researcher proposed to randomly select names of potential respondents from the metropolitan telephone book, then to telephone them with the goal of qualifying them and arranging face-to-face interviews. However, many households chosen were hard to reach by telephone, and the rejection rate was approximately eight of 10.

The researcher then decided to switch to an alternative sampling method. This involved the random selection of streets in a cross section of suburbs in the south and west parts of Brisbane and door-knocking to ask potential respondents for an interview. These face-to-face requests took place during weekdays and weekends and continued from house to house until a respondent was found from each street. Interviews were arranged for later or took place immediately, depending on the respondent's preference. This method yielded a high acceptance rate: there were fewer than five refusals out of 45 requests for interviews. The overall sample size of 40 was determined by time and other resources available, although 40 represents a substantial figure for the in-depth Sense-Making interviewing to be employed, with the prospect of rich findings.

Interviews with respondents were based on a protocol that reflected Sense-Making guidelines and lasted an average of one and a half hours each. (A pilot study was conducted with six individuals to allow the protocol to be refined.)

Respondents chose the number and type of situations to discuss, as noted; indeed, interview content was largely determined by individuals themselves, while the protocol focused on the steps the individual took in a situation. Specifically, respondents were asked to use the Sense-Making metaphor to describe their actual (not hypothetical) experience (Dervin, 1989, 1992). This metaphor conceptualizes the individual as moving through a situation as one would travel down a road, and being stopped in their movement when faced with a confusion. These "stops" were treated as important and were probed in depth. For example, respondents were asked what questions they asked themselves (silently or aloud) about the situation they faced, how they "got moving" again and how satisfactory this was. As well, respondents were given the opportunity at the end of the interview to express any additional concerns they had regarding environmental campaigns.

The interviews were audio-taped with the permission of respondents for later transcription, with notes also taken during the interview. Initial data analysis involved the establishment and refinement of coding categories, with two researchers employed to check coding reliability. Then data were sifted several times to find the strongest patterns of response, with a quality check of this analysis provided by a senior researcher, the thesis supervisor.

The unit of analysis in this study was the question asked by the respondent -- not the respondent -- reflecting the Sense-Making approach (Dervin 1982, 1992). Data analysis aimed at identifying situations that householders experienced vis-à-vis environmental responsibility. Dervin's situation-movement-state metaphoric categories were used for a deductively driven analysis and the warrant of data itself was used to inductively derive a set of categories. The information-seeking and -use behaviors of respondents were operationalized in the following three ways:

Nature of questions asked. Questions asked by householders were categorized using previous Sense-Making research categories (Dervin, 1982). One important distinction was whether the respondent asked a "what," "why," "how," "who," or "when" question (what Dervin terms the "5W focus" of questions asked); another was the specific topic asked about. These distinctions were used to categorize "the gap" experienced by the individual; that is, the information perceived as needed by the householder in that situation.

Nature of strategies used to get answers. Information seeking was seen as what the respondents did or thought in getting an answer to the questions they had. That is, data were analyzed to identify what the individual did or thought to make sense of the confusion experienced and, thus, allow him or her to cognitively "move on." In Sense-Making studies, this is referred to as "bridge-making": strategies employed by the individual are seen to act as a bridge across the cognitive gap experienced by the individual. It serves as a bridge because it enables movement that was interrupted to continue.

Nature of answers got. The kind of answers got by householders in this study represents the nature of "the bridge" made by them and was described using categories derived from the data. Analysis was aimed at identifying patterns for the source of answer, the completeness of the answer, the satisfactoriness of the answer, and the value attached to answer for respondents.


How Householders Saw Their Situations.

The 40 householders in this study discussed an average of three different situations relating to their taking environmentally friendly action. The two most common experiences in these situations were feeling blocked or frustrated and wanting others to do more (described by respondents alone or together in 46.3% of all situations described). Feeling "blocked" was illustrated by Sam, a low-income householder in his 30s who wanted to dispose of used car oil responsibly but didn't know how, and his frustration was compounded by language difficulties. "Wanting others to do more" was illustrated by Rob, a high-income householder in his 40s who wanted to take the train to work but found services cut. At the same time, he perceived the government promoting public transport. Rob wanted the government to adopt a more comprehensive approach to environmental problems.

As well, respondents also commonly experienced "feeling lost or uncertain" about the environment (17.3% of situations described). This was illustrated by Denise, a high-income householder in her 40s who did not see any alternative to using plastic bags at the grocery store. Together, these three main experiences by householders reflect situations that constrained them as individuals, with government action and/or policies perceived as impeding or limiting their actions as individuals. Further, respondents experienced contradiction or inconsistency in situations (54.9% of situations described) and general confusion about the issue (50.6% of situations). Thus, situations relating to environmental issues were problematic for respondents.

Questions Asked by Householders about Protecting the Environment

Respondents had no difficulty identifying questions in situations they faced. The 40 respondents asked a total of 162 separate questions, an average of just over one question in each situation they discussed. Over half the time, respondents had just one question in a situation.

Questions asked by respondents in trying to make sense of their experiences fell into four main subject areas, as shown in Table 1. That is, 112 questions out of the total of 162 (69.1%) either concerned environmentally friendly or unfriendly products (20.4% of all questions asked), waste disposal including recycling and composting (19.1%), what individuals can or should do (19.1%), or what the government is or could be doing (10.5%). For example, respondents commonly wanted to know how they could be more environmentally responsible and ways they could do things; they asked about waste disposal such as what can be done to reduce the use of plastics or if more could be recycled. The remainder of questions asked by respondents (30.9% of all questions asked) represented subjects attracting only a small number of similar questions, for example, the media, the ozone layer, pollution, and population growth.


Table 1: Main subject areas of questions asked by respondents about taking environmental responsibility.


The most common questions asked by householders about environmental responsibility were "why...?" and "what...?" questions (36.4% and 35.1% of all questions asked, respectively). A "why...?" question asked is illustrated by respondents who wanted to appreciate seemingly contradictory situations. For example, Why is this [switching lights to low energy] so dear? (Q.107, asked by Jennifer, a high-income householder in her 30s) and Why don't we have incentives? (Q. 21, asked by James, a high-income householder in his 50s).

"What...?" questions mainly concerned clarification of a particular situation, process, or object, in contrast to "why...?" questions which mainly sought the logic or reasons behind a situation. A "what...?" question asked is illustrated by respondents who wanted to understand what was happening or asked what they could do as householders. For example, What's really happening [with the environment]? (Q.10, asked by Rochelle, a low income householder in her 40s); What options do I have to get rid of my waste? (Q.73, asked by Sam, a low income householder in his 30s); What else can we do that's not time-consuming? (Q.135, asked by Denise, a high-income householder in her 40s).

Householders also commonly asked "how...?" questions (25.9% of all questions asked, respectively). A "how...?" question asked is illustrated by respondents who wanted to clarify the importance of some activity, or how it might be carried out. For example, How important is this to do? (Q.27, asked by Kathy, a high-income householder in her 40s); How will this help the environment? (Q.162, asked by Darlene, a low-income householder in her 40s); How can we do more? (Q.69, asked by Keith, a low-income householder in his 30s).

Other types of questions, such as "who...?" "when...?" and "where...?", were almost never asked by householders about environmental protection (only 3.1% of all questions asked, combined). These questions were asked by respondents who wanted specific information. For example, When will [type of] recycling start? (Q. 85, asked by Liza, a high-income householder in her 40s).

As well, householders focused on the present in the questions they asked (82.1% of all questions), largely overlooking the past or future. To illustrate, a present-focus question was asked by Frank, a high-income male householder in his 40s: Why isn't the government talking to companies producing waste? (Q.11). An example of a past-focus question was: Why have we been so slow in addressing our problems? (Q.36, asked by Liz, a high-income householder in her 70s). An example of a future-focus question was What will happen to all the old cars in the world if people can't run them any more? (Q.66, asked by Peter, a low-income male householder in his 30s).

There were some differences in the number of questions asked across income and gender categories. High-income householders asked more questions than low-income householders (62.3% of questions verses 37.7%) and, to a lesser extent, women asked more questions than men (54.3% verses 45.7% of questions asked). Thus, females in the wealthier households asked the most questions, almost twice that of males in less wealthy households (34.0% of all questions verses 17.9%). However, there were no differences identified in the type of question asked across demographic categories.

How Householders Resolved Their Environmental Confusions

Generally, householders in this study were passive in their information-seeking. They tended to rely upon their own ideas rather than actions to get answers to their questions. Further, on the odd occasion when respondents did take specific action, they rarely sought out information provided by environmental campaigns. They occasionally spoke to friends or relatives or otherwise used resources they saw as helpful and available, but their use of campaign literature was limited; they did not seek it out to resolve confusions.

Of the ideas used to deal with their confusion, respondents largely relied upon locating the onus of responsibility for environmental problems. The most common idea was that a greater sense of responsibility needed to be taken with respect to the environment. As shown in Table 2, householders wanted to do more as individuals, that is, to be able to do more (nominated in 46.3% of bridge-making instances). This was followed by wanting the government to do more (36.4% of instances), then for the community as a whole to do more (29.0%). The government's role was perceived to be important, for it facilitated action across different levels.


Table 2: Primary "bridge-making" ideas used by respondents to resolve environmental confusions.


For individuals to become more responsible, householders saw several requirements. One important one was that individuals need to be able to better evaluate environmentally friendly claims for products via clearer, more user-friendly labeling and guidance. Householders perceived the environmental-related claims of companies to be unclear: what difference would it make to the environment to use that product?

Other requirements were financial incentives and greater convenience for individuals to be more environmentally friendly. For example, respondents wanted to switch to low-energy bulbs or to install a solar hot water system at home easily and without great expense. Also, they wanted the availability and quality of environmentally friendly products as well as their cost to become more comparable with alternatives. In brief, they wanted more practical options to be made available to them, such as alternatives to plastic bags, better public transport, purchasing reputable brand-name products in bulk or with less packaging/environmentally friendly packaging, and for environmentally damaging products to be less available/withdrawn from sale.

As noted, householders tended to use ideas more than action in resolving their confusions. Indeed, the most common action in response to confusion was to do nothing: householders put off acting "for the time being" (in 30.9% of bridge-making instances). The next most common strategies used were to weigh alternative courses of action with a compromise action (in 19.1% of instances) or simply to do what they felt they could do (13.6%). For example, a compromise action was illustrated by Ann, a low-income householder in her 60s who continued to purchase cheaper chemical-based products because managing the household budget took priority. "Doing what they could" was illustrated by Liza, a high-income householder in her 40s who took her own bag for carrying groceries: "It's not much but at least it is something."

Answers Householders Got to Their Questions.

This question may be rephrased as "what kinds of answers did householders get to their questions about taking environmentally friendly action?" The answer was generally negative: respondents were not satisfied with the answers they got.

Firstly, they did not necessarily see themselves as having got complete answers, as Table 3 shows. For more than a third of the questions that they had, the householders in this study were not satisfied that they had got an answer at all, that is, their confusion remained (35.8% of instances). For another 14.2% of their questions, respondents said they had only partly got answers.


Table 3: Respondents' perception of the completeness of the answers they got to their questions relating to environmental responsibility


Secondly, the answers they got did not necessarily satisfy them. Overwhelmingly, respondents attached negative emotion or mixed emotion to the answers they got (95.1% of all questions), with a negative feeling attached to the answer more than half the time (53.7%), as Table 4 shows. A negative feeling was one that did not make the respondents feel any better about the situation, or they felt bad about the answer, that it was disappointing or unacceptable. Rarely did respondents feel positive about the answer they got (in just 4.9% of all questions they had). In such situations, respondents felt good or better about the situation. Where respondents felt mixed emotions about an answer, there was no clear sense of either feeling better or worse; they were ambivalent.


Table 4: Emotions attached to answers got for environmental questions or confusions.


Next, the respondents did not necessarily get answers from where they expected. They relied upon themselves as the primary source for the answer for 77.2% of all questions that respondents had, as Table 5 shows). No respondents reported that formal external sources such as public communication campaigns primarily answered their questions, yet informal external sources such as friends and family were helpful as primary sources of answers (for 22.8% of questions householders had). This represents one of the greatest discrepancies in the study: respondents said they had expected external resolution of their questions (in 70% of all questions asked) yet in reality this did not occur.


Table 5: Primary source of answers obtained about environmental questions


Finally, the study also sought to identify the value or "help" that householders obtained from their answers to environmental confusions or questions. That is, how did householders use the "bridge" they made? Assuming people make bridges to get somewhere, where is this place for householders? Mostly, respondents used answers to feel better about doing little to protect the environment; that is, they helped to preserve the status quo. Further, while answers to their questions translated into small or negligible behavioral change, they helped householders get ready for change, when it becomes more feasible for householders.

Respondents commonly experienced more than one source of help for an answer, as shown in Table 6. The most common help nominated was gaining a sense of priority from their answer; that is, they were able to decide what was important to do in a situation (58% of bridge-making instances or answers).

The next most common help was householders' realizing that others, mostly government, needed to do more if the environment was to be better served as a help (38.9% of answers). Other helps included relief from feeling anxious about environmental issues (34.0%), acceptance of the situation as it was (25.3%), and gaining of a sense of responsibility (24.7%). This last help refers to respondents feeling happy that they had done something to fulfill, at least in part, a need to be responsible, such as questioning the "propaganda" of conservationists in order to keep the issue in perspective.


Table 6: Primary helps received from answers for environmental questions


Qualitative Themes in the Study

The following ten themes were drawn from the data to enrich the description of responses given above and represent the main patterns identified in respondents' comments about protecting the environment. While this section is based on data more loosely collected than the previous section, it makes a qualitative contribution to more fully understanding the respondents' perspective.

In brief, these themes reflect the primary strands which made up the qualitative weave of the interviews; together, they reflect the scope and quality of what respondents had to say about protecting the environment. While there is some overlap across themes, each adds another layer of insight into the householders' perspective. In this description, three broad concerns of householders may be identified- understanding the problem, taking individual responsibility for solutions, and working as a community for solutions.

1. Just how bad is it. It is difficult to know how bad the state of the environment actually is, to get answers to questions about the "true" state of the environment. One of the constant concerns of respondents was that they heard that the state of the environment is worsening or, alternatively, improving but there seems to be little, or no, access to balanced information. Debate about the environment was commonly seen as irrational, for example:

We're getting slanted views, misinformation by different groups who have their own agenda... we don't know how to react. -- Darlene, a low-income householder in her 40s

We have to keep perspective. -- Ellen, a high-income female in her 70s

Environmental problems were generally worrying but not specific enough for people to form a firm view, for example:
I don't know where it's all going to finish. -- Kathy, a high-income female in her 40s

People don't know how bad things are . . . it's confusing. -- Paul, a low-income male in his 40s

Just as it is difficult "to get the story straight" about the environment, so it is difficult to appreciate the consequences of individual behavior, for example:
It worries me but I really don't know what I can personally do to stop it. -- Sam, a low-income male in his 30s

It would be good to know that making an effort really makes a difference. -- Tracey, a low-income female in her 20s

This confusion appeared to contribute to a withdrawal of sorts by individuals, as they waited for things to get clearer. If one did not expect to get balanced information about the bigger environmental issues, untainted by political point-scoring or media sensationalism, it was easier to remove oneself personally from the bigger issues. At the same time, they questioned how serious our environmental problems are: they saw contradictions everywhere, for example:
If it really is serious, then why do they allow it? -- Carol, a low-income female in her 40s.

It's not as serious as the papers and various people say . . . one big volcano would cause the lot to change. -- John, a high-income male in his 50s

Those less concerned about the environment saw today's environmental risks as different, but no better nor worse, than our forebears experienced. Older respondents pointed to parallels to the frugality of earlier times, and spoke of "natural cycles." Whether or not respondents saw the environment of today in poor shape, however, the environment was generally considered a fashionable topic, and one that could be exploited for commercial interests.

2. We need the media to tell us what's happening. The media were seen to have a serious role in informing the community. Some applauded their efforts, for example:

If it wasn't for the media, how would we find out about the problems? -- Sue, a low-income female in her 40s
Others saw a discrepancy between what they promised and what they delivered when it came to environmental issues. The media were accused of operating from financial and other imperatives to define and treat environmental issues superficially rather than in depth, for example:
It's sensationalized to sell papers or get the ratings . . . that's all it cares about.-- Colin, a low-income male in his 20s

The media is part of the problem . . . things really have to get out of hand to get on the news. -- Rob, a high-income male in his 40s

While the media, particularly television, showed disturbing images of human neglect of the environment such as serious pollution and environmental disasters, they were seen by some to overlook deeper issues, more "on-going" than news implied. They also focused on negative news not positive changes that might be being made, for example:
The big problem is that people think problems are so bad, there's no hope. -- Ian, a low-income male in his 20s

The media focuses on the personalities and problems, not the solutions. -- Nick, a high-income male in his 30s

Householders commonly claimed to dismiss media messages if the source was perceived to have low credibility or the message appeared to contradict their own experiences and understanding. However, the credibility of specific sources used for environmental messages on television varied.

There appeared to be a degree of dissatisfaction in how well the media help the community deal with the environment. As a result, the media were experienced by a number of respondents as of limited help in getting information about the environment and in helping people make sense of it all, for example:

The media is all people have got; they have to rely on it and yet we can't. -- Rochelle, a low-income female in her 40s

The situation is very different, from my personal knowledge, to the way it's shown by the media. -- Carol, a low-income female in her 40s

3. It's not something you think about when you first wake up in the morning. The environment was rarely experienced as something that has priority in people's lives. Life was seen as pressured, and respondents needed to meet their priorities, for example:
It's on my list of things I worry about, but it's not my main problem. -- Sam, a low-income male in his 30s

I want to do more, but I just haven't got around to it. -- Ross, a low-income male in his 30s

Caring for the environment, while considered worthwhile, was not in any way an immediate worry for individuals; it was a more impersonal and distant concern for everyone in the community, for example:
I've never really thought about it. -- Rochelle, a low-income female in her 40s

I don't think about it. -- Ellen, a high-income female in her 70s

The abstraction of the term, and lack of personal meaning attached to it, appeared to make it difficult for people to respond positively to campaign messages. While there was a general concern expressed about the environment, it was simply not what they worried about in an immediate sense. Indeed, when the respondents did things that were environmentally friendly, there were frequently other reasons for doing them such as cost, convenience, or habit.

4. You're either considerate or you're not.The environment was not something people necessarily found relevant in their day-to-day activities: whether one does "the right thing" or not was commonly seen as coming down to one's approach to life, for example:

I'm not actively out there for the environment. -- Ann, a low-income female in her 60s

It's a question of being responsible or not. -- Barbara, a high-income female in her 50s

Respondents did what they considered necessary for themselves and their families to be happy and well. They saw caring for the environment as more to do with their attitude to their world, rather than devoting themselves selflessly to being environmentally friendly (as much as they might admire people who did this). Respondents spoke of trying to be responsible in general; that is, as individuals to care for the people and things around them, to live in harmony with the world. "Nature" was a term which people, especially older people, could more easily relate to in a personal sense; some appeared to have genuine trouble attaching personal meaning to the term "environment," for example:
The environment is too broad a concept. -- Ellen, a high income female in her 70s

What does the environment mean, anyway? Isn't it everything? -- Patrick, a high-income male in his 70s

5. The environment is important to me, but... While there was concern about the quality of the environment, with some feeling very strongly about it, it did not take precedence over other priorities. Meeting the household budget, looking after the baby, buying the product you really want, and saving time were all important, for example
People have to live within their budgets. -- Sam, a low-income male in his 30s

I'd like to buy environmentally friendly cleansers, but they don't work as well. -- Ann, a low-income female in her 60s

In any situation, there were a number of factors seen to be relevant, and while protecting the environment was of interest, it came down to doing what one has to do. If this could be environmentally friendly, too, all the better, for example:
It's no extra work; it's just fine. -- Sandy, a high-income female in her 50s)

People will take a non-friendly option if it's more convenient. -- Keith, a low-income male in his 30s

The environment was important but so are other things, for example:
I don't go overboard... when there's an opportunity, I do it. -- Frank, a high-income male in his 40s

I know plastic bags are bad for the environment, but you still have to carry your groceries. -- Kathy, a high-income female in her 40s

6. I just do my bit, and hope that everybody else does theirs. Respondents saw the issue of environmental responsibility as belonging to the wider community; all that individuals could do was their "little bit." Thus, as individuals, they were supportive when the opportunity arose and hoped that others were also. Further, time was seen to be part of the solution: it was commonly hoped that younger people would be able to do more about protecting the environment because they were learning about it from childhood, for example:
There's not much I can do, but I do what I can. It all adds up. It wouldn't be much good if we didn't try, if we all left it up to others. -- Denise, a high-income female in her 40s

I'm optimistic that the younger people today are wanting to do more, and things are already changing. It's harder for us older people to change. -- Liz, a high-income female in her 70s

Making a large effort on one's own was not an attractive option, for example:
It's just too hard to do the right thing all the time. I tried and found that services just weren't available... no one is really helping us. -- Pam, a high-income female in her 30s

You see factories churning out the pollution, even though they color it white... Why should I make a big effort when the big players don't? -- Nick, a high-income male in his 30s

Indeed, being environmentally friendly was seen by a number of respondents as a trade-off with convenience and "the good life," for example:
I know I shouldn't be "sucked in" but beautiful product packaging really gets me in, I love it. I always have. -- Melody, a high-income female in her 30s

Until they work out how to provide the quality we have become used to in the products that we buy in a way which isn't going to damage the environment, people won't buy them. -- Sue, a low-income female in her 40s

While respondents saw themselves as targeted by campaigns to become environmentally friendly, they pointed to few real opportunities to do things differently, for example:
[We] must make things easy and quick to do, then people will respond. -- Trevor, a high-income male in his 40s

Recycling is a really great thing, everyone's keen to do it right, it's made it a lot easier and this changes people to some extent. -- Rob, a high-income male in his 40s

One striking metaphor was given by Jennifer, a 35-year-old high-income householder that illustrates the experience so many respondents appeared to have with messages to care for the environment:
I really just see myself as being in a cocoon. I do my bit and hope that everybody else does theirs. That's all I really think about it. -- Jennifer, a high-income female in her mid-30s
7. Whose problem IS this? A common strain in the interviews was that the answer to environmental problems lay with the community. In particular, householders in the study wanted the government to do more to protect the environment, both encouraging through incentives as well as discouraging through firm laws and punishing those who break them.

Neither the government nor the private sector was perceived as accepting its responsibility towards the environment, and this was seen as seriously constraining individuals both in terms of options available to them and in their willingness to do more themselves, for example:

Companies must face the consequences of their actions and contribute more to the solution. -- Ross, a low-income male in his 30s

Companies are more concerned with minimizing costs than [worrying about] the environment. -- Lou, a low-income male in his 60s

The focus on individuals in environmental messages was criticized; individuals were seen as easy targets, when bigger and more powerful parts of the community were still not doing what they could. Householders spoke about the environment more in terms of what we should be doing as a community, rather than as individuals.

The structure of the economy was seen by some respondents to work against the community being environmentally sensitive: the values inherent in the economic system seemed to conflict with protecting the environment. The cost of converting to environmentally friendly alternatives and the potential loss of profits -- with selling products without packaging, for example -- was seen as a deterrent for business. At the same time, the political system was commonly seen as paying "lip service" to solving environmental problems rather than making the necessary "tough" decisions that would change how things are done, for example:

What individuals can do is a start, but it's not the real problem. -- James, a high-income male in his 50s

A lot of companies could do more. -- Paul, a low-income male in his 40s

There was a concern for balance, or compromise, between economic interests and caring for the environment -- the issue was seen as complex and involved the practicalities of taking care of people as well as the environment.

8. Let's DO something!! There was wide support for the new environmental consciousness; respondents saw that there was greater concern for the quality of the environment than in the past, for example:

We need to clean up the mess we've created. -- Margaret, a low-income female in her 50s

Our efforts are insignificant compared to our problems. -- Sandy, a high-income female in her 50s

Curbside recycling received strong support from people for these reasons, plus its convenience and practicality as an option. Respondents reflected a sense of urgency and a need to act; there was a sense of running out of time on solving big issues, for example:
Why has it taken so long to do anything when we knew about the problems years ago? -- Tracey, a low-income female in her 20s

I' m frightened for the future... what will it be like for our children when they're grown up, and their children? We really need to act now before it's too late. -- Kathy, a high-income female in her 40s

Government was urged to legislate, or to set in place a schedule, so conversion to environmentally friendly manufacture would occur within a timeframe. Respondents were vitally concerned that the community acts and doesn't just talk about problems, for example:
Not enough is being done about the problems we've got. -- Lois, a low-income female in her 20s

It's really negative; what we need is to be constructive, to find some solutions. -- Alan, a high-income male in his 40s

9. Are we serious, or just paying lip service? A common issue was whether the community was genuinely concerned for the environment, or if we were just paying lip service to it, for example:
We are concerned about the environment, but not if it gets in the way of making profits. -- John, a high-income male in his 50s

Everyone has a stake in doing things the way we are now. -- Bart, a high-income male in his 40s

Respondents commonly asked why we did not do more, for example:
Why are we allowed to continue producing harmful products? -- Melody, a high-income female in her 30s

People need positive reasons to do things differently. -- Bart, a high-income male in his 40s

They echoed a fear that the community's commitment was not deep-seated enough to effect real change. There appeared to be wide concern that we are not sufficiently committed to protecting the environment to effect major changes in the way we do things, for example:
Why don't we give the environment more priority? -- Zoe, a low-income female in her 30s

The technology is there for conversion to environmentally friendly products, but not the will. -- James, a high-income male in his 50s

Another concern was that while there appeared to be genuine problems, there were no genuine solutions: some respondents feared that long-lasting changes would not be made. Politicians were seen as riding on the issue to win votes, marketers for profit, the media for ratings, and community groups for funding, for example:
The environment is used to sell products. -- Tracey, a low-income female in her 20s

It is a vote winner for politicians. -- Rochelle, a low-income female in her 40s

10. We just wouldn't do it on our own. Respondents echoed the need to find co-operative solutions -- for government, business, and ordinary consumers to communicate better and to work together to find solutions. This was linked to community support for individuals, for example:
I'm probably the only person in ten suburbs who did this tonight. [I think], why bother? -- Graham, a low-income male in his 50s

If we don't do it at all levels of the community, we'll still be in a mess. -- Barbara, a high-income female in her 50s

There was general support for guidance at the neighborhood level, for example:
I wouldn't do it on my own, but I would happily go along with any decision that's made. -- Darlene, a low-income female in her 40s

They just need to tell us what to do and we'll do it. People have good intentions but someone needs to organize things. -- Denise, a high-income female in her 40s

Respondents suggested that the days of radical action and speech regarding the environment were gone. They favored cooperation rather than getting everyone "off side." However, respondents commonly felt that some tough decisions, including legislation, would be needed, for example:
We need legislation, not as in the Big Brother sense, but we're all in this together... we all need a push. -- Sandy, a high-income female in her 50s

The government needs the backbone to say this is what's going to happen, then put in the resources to make sure it does. -- Margaret, a low-income female in her 50s

Of all respondents, the most positive tended to be those in their 20s and 30s, with children at school. Their children were coming home from school talking about the environment and engaging their parents in various school projects relating to the environment
Summary and Implications for Campaigns

In this study, householders showed concern about the environment, in particular how the community might improve environmental practices. However, understanding the community's approach to the problem was problematic for them, and actions they could take as individuals were unclear. This has substantial implications for environmental communication campaigns.

One finding of the study was that householders did not see the situation requiring changes to their individual behavior so much as requiring changes by government and the community as a whole. They were not prepared to accept the burden for change themselves. They could not act alone, despite wanting more to be done to protect the environment and wanting to take some responsibility in this process. Further, they did not like being expected to do so.

Another finding of the study was that householders saw environmentally friendly activities as too hard for them to do. While they could see the need to do more themselves, they did not see that options to do so were viable, at least at the moment. What they were being asked to do was frequently inconvenient, expensive, or confusing. There was a sense that things were changing, however, and they were prepared to wait until it got easier for them to take action.

A third finding was that householders were confused about the seriousness of environmental degradation and the response to it by government and the community. They identified contradictions between rhetoric and action, and this made them cynical. They wanted to understand why the issue was being overlooked, or appeared to be so, if the problem was a real one.

Further, respondents suggested that information provided by environmental campaigns was limited in its value for householders. Householders tended to piece together answers for themselves and these answers were more likely to disappoint than to please. It was not the amount of information that campaigns provided or the speed with which it might be accessed that failed to match householder expectations, so much as the quality of information provided. Campaign information was of little relevance to people in coming to terms with cognitive gaps relating to environmental responsibility.

The main implications for campaigns are three-fold. Firstly, greater community-wide changes need to be made, and be seen, if individuals are to shift from their waiting state. Policy-makers need to encourage, and coordinate, wider changes across the community. Public communication campaigns need to inform householders of the joint efforts being made among the main players in the community and the effects of such changes.

Secondly, campaign planners need to look closely at what they are asking of householders and more directly address the difficulties or frustrations involved in these options. Planners could put energy into improving the practicality and appeal of these options, with greater support and incentives for individuals choosing to "do the right thing" and clearly communicating the benefit, the contribution the action makes.

Finally, campaign information needs to answer the main questions that householders have about environmental responsibility. Specifically, householders in this study wanted information about genuine, bipartisan attempts to address the issue and about the practical side of actually doing more as individuals and as a community. The "problem" areas of apparent contradiction surrounding the issue need to be addressed by campaigns if they are to provide information that is useful for householders.

Overall, the use of Sense-Making Methodology for this study allowed the researcher to explore the meaningfulness of environmental communication campaigns for individuals comprising a main "public"' or group in the community. The study's findings directly address the concern by a growing number of researchers that campaign research needs to recognize the subjectivity inherent in negotiating campaign information. The findings support the notion that communication is a creative human process and that simply delivering information to people via campaigns is inadequate unless it is helpful to them in negotiating real situations and the dilemmas and opportunities inherent in them.

Specifically, Sense-Making Methodology provided a means by which respondents could freely raise questions abut their communities and governments and so opened up their perspectives more fully than other research methods might permit. It freed the research from campaign philosophy that puts the onus of change onto individuals. By focusing upon the cognitive gaps they experienced in relation to being environmentally friendly, and the ways they resolved those gaps, the study yielded insight into the way householders intersected with environmental messages in reality. That is, by allowing respondents to describe the questions they had, rather than making the researcher's questions central to the discussion (even open-ended ones), this method allowed the researcher to get close to the respondents' reality in negotiating campaign messages.

The study gave respondents the prerogative to define what to discuss and to prioritize from their perspective. Being process-oriented, the Sense-Making Methodology allowed the paradoxes of this particular key "audience" to be identified. It also enabled sampling to be inclusive because many potential respondents were not initially interested but agreed when it was explained that this method only wanted them to describe their own experiences, in their own words.


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