As president and CEO of Rare, Brett Jenks overseas work on five continents, helping people in sensitive environmental areas to be better stewards of their natural surroundings. Rare has won Fast Companyís Social Capitalist Award four years in a row. For more information, visit www.rareconservation.org
Green Builder: You describe your non-profit work as a Pride campaign, “using private sector marketing techniques to ‘sell’ social change.”
Brett Jenks: Yes, we believe the root cause of the world’s environmental problems is human behavior. The decisions we make, such as where we travel, how we heat our homes—decisions often made unconsciously—those are the fulcrum on which the plight of nature depends.
GB: But facts alone don’t change minds.
BJ: We have to look to the passions that drive people—to reach them through religion, advertising, or social marketing. For example, look how views of cigarettes have changed. It’s now illegal to smoke in bars in Virginia. That would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
GB: But Philip Morris, aka Altria, simply moved a lot of their cigarette sales overseas.
BJ: That’s true. They go where they encounter the least regulation. There are no silver bullets. You have to take one thing at a time. Incidentally, we do absolutely no work in the United States trying to change opinions.
GB: Why not?
BJ: Because every dollar spent here pales with a dollar spent in a place such as the developing tropics. Here, our message has to compete with consumer advertising and a powerful media. If you can accomplish any cultural shift in the United States, it’s heroic. But in rural China, or Mexico, or Peru, people live right next to their resources—wood, water, and food. Choices affect them directly.
GB: Break it down. How do you win over a community?
BJ: First we identify a local leader, a head of the community, for example, such as a charismatic schoolteacher, and try to connect with him. Next, we identify the environmental problem—such as depletion of fish species in local coastal waters. We ask, what’s the human behavior that’s driving the threat? Then we help them understand a better way to protect their resource.
GB: But again, a lot of people ignore information. They act on emotion.
BJ: We don’t go after the behavior directly. What we try to do is to provide a feeling. We create a civic celebration about local resource. People often feel pride once they realize that their vistas, their forests, their wetlands are unique and valuable.
GB: Sounds like you’re recasting local mythologies.
BJ: We’re about changing the story. We have local priests crafting environmental messages. We sign up the best local musicians, along with billboards, bumper stickers, radio talk shows, cookoffs, and a green-oriented American Idol show for locals.
GB: Still, it’s tough to transmit urgency.
BJ: You’ve got to influence the influencers and change the story. Every kid needs to know where his or her water comes from but most don’t. The story becomes, when you control your resources—your water, your food—you control your life.
GB: Won’t bigger corporate interests resist such localized control of resources?
BJ: Look, it took 20 years to get people to wear seatbelts. Car makers wouldn’t put them in until legislation mandated them. Change has to be both social and legal. It can be as complicated as physics.
GB: Where do builders fit in?
BJ: They are at the forefront. Old forest destruction is responsible for 20% of the climate change problem. Builders help decide where we live and what we displace. People are now asking for green homes. It’s time to make that decision personal, and provide the impetus for action.