Over the years, several pieces of communication have stood out for being instrumental in bringing about change. They include a mix of media types as well as authors - individuals, organisations and governments.
What they have in common is their ability to convey information effectively, connect at an emotional level and inspire people to take action.
Here are 17 of what I consider to be the best pieces of sustainability communication over the past 60+ years.
In chronological order, they are:
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, 1962
BOOK: This book was credited with starting the modern environmental movement. It raised awareness of the dangers of widespread pesticide use and led to the banning of DDT in the US. ‘Silent Spring’ refers to the loss of birdsong as a result of pesticides working their way up the food chain. They destroy birdlife and other wildlife, as well as affecting human health.
Earthrise by William Landers, 1968
PHOTO: Earthrise was the first colour photo of Earth taken from space (see NASA image above). It is one of the most famous photos ever taken. It is credited with accelerating the environmental movement and the creation of Earth Day. William Landers took the photo from the Apollo 8 spacecraft as it rounded the dark side of the moon on Christmas Eve 1968.
The Lorax by Dr Seuss, 1971
BOOK: This famous children’s book tells the story of sustainable business in simple rhyme. It explains the concept of the circular economy in terms primary school children can understand. The Lorax is the main character, who “speaks for the trees”. He confronts the ‘Onceler’ a business that destroys trees for commercial gain. The book includes the well-known line: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”
The Limits to Growth by Meadows et al, 1972
REPORT: The Limits to Growth was published by The Club of Rome. It predicted that Earth’s resources wouldn’t be able to support existing rates of population and economic growth after about 100 years. The findings were based on computer simulations, a novelty at the time. The report was a milestone in raising awareness of the limits to continuous growth on a planet with finite natural resources. It was controversial when first published. However subsequent analyses have shown many of the predictions were fairly accurate.
Small is Beautiful by EF Schumacher, 1973
BOOK: This collection of essays was a radical (at the time) critique of mainstream economics. It was called an ‘eco-bible’ by Time magazine. Schumacher said capitalism brought higher living standards but at the cost of deteriorating culture. He argued against the prevailing concept of ‘bigger is better’.
Our Common Future (Brundtland report), 1987
REPORT: This publication produced the most widely accepted definition of sustainability: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The report was published by the World Commission on Environment and Development, led by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway.
Cradle to Cradle: remaking the way we make things by William McDonough & Michael Braungart, 2002
BOOK: Cradle to Cradle called for a complete rethink in the way we design and make things. It advocated for companies to stop manufacturing products that end up as rubbish (‘cradle to grave’). It was a visionary concept that was a precursor to the circular economy.
Let My People Go Surfing: the education of a reluctant businessman by Yvon Chouinard, 2005
BOOK: This book sets out a blueprint for a sustainable company, one that puts its people first. It was written by the founder of Patagonia, a true business pioneer. Yvon Chouinard started out selling climbing equipment, simply to fund his love for mountaineering. The reference to ‘surfing’ refers to Patagonia’s flexitime policy that allows staff to go surfing when the conditions are right. In 2023 Time magazine named Chouinard as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
An Inconvenient Truth starring Al Gore, 2006
MOVIE: This documentary features former US Vice-President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people on climate change. It won two Oscars and was made part of school curricula around the world. The following year Al Gore won the Nobel Peace prize for raising awareness about climate change, together with the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard, 2007
VIDEO: This 20-minute animated video looks at production and consumption patterns around the world. Its conclusion is that we have too much stuff, too much of it is toxic and we’re not sharing it well. The film conveyed complex ideas in a simple cartoon and quickly went viral. It included the well-known line: “There is no such thing as away. When we throw anything away it must go somewhere”.
Air New Zealand’s first sustainability report, 2015
REPORT: Back in 2015, few New Zealand corporates were reporting on sustainability. That changed when one of the country’s most iconic companies released its first sustainability report. It was accompanied by widespread publicity and a launch event attended by hundreds of business leaders. The report put sustainability on the map for businesses. Other companies soon followed suit.
Sustainable Development Goals, 2015
INFOGRAPHIC: The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework for addressing global challenges such as climate change, environmental degradation and poverty. They are represented by a simple, colourful infographic. The SDGs have been adopted by organisations around the world as a framework for addressing sustainability.
Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill, 2017
LEGISLATION: The Whanganui River was the first river in the world to be recognised as a legal person. This legislation declares that the river is a living whole. It reflects the local iwi’s spiritual connection and ancestral relationship with the river. It set a precedent and was followed by others around the world, including the Ganges in India.
Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist by Kate Raworth, 2017
BOOK: Doughnut Economics is a visual framework that shows the Earth’s ecological and social boundaries as circles, with a safe space in between. The framework is shaped like a doughnut. Its premise is that no-one should fall short of life’s essentials, while ensuring we don’t put too much pressure on the Earth’s systems.
Drawdown: the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, Paul Hawken, 2017
BOOK: This is a compilation of 100 solutions to climate change, based on research by scientists and policy makers around the world. The solutions are ranked by the potential amount of greenhouse gases they could cut. They range from revolutionising how we produce food to educating girls in lower-income countries. The book was a New York Times bestseller.
School strike for climate sign by Greta Thunberg, 2018
SIGN: Fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg started a global movement, by sitting outside the Swedish parliament for three weeks in the lead up to an election. She refused to go to school and demanded action on climate. Her simple piece of communication was a large sign that read ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ (‘School strike for climate’).
A Life on Our Planet, David Attenborough, 2020
DOCUMENTARY: This TV series, and an accompanying book, was less a nature documentary and more a call to arms. Sir David Attenborough called it his ‘witness statement’. He said he had seen first-hand the planet’s declining biodiversity over his 60-year career. The series was particularly influential in raising awareness of nature and climate issues, as Attenborough has been a trusted authority over many decades.
This list formed the basis of Fiona Stephenson's presentation at the Masterclass on Communicating Sustainability, September 2023. Thanks to attendees for suggesting a few more additions to the original list. If you can think of any other transformative communications, email Fiona on email@example.com