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Say Goodbye to Green

How are you helping to "mainstream" sustainability through communications?
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What we identify as “sustainability” has changed and evolved from the “green” of yesterday. Our spoken, written, and visual vocabulary to describe a healthy and environmentally and economically responsible lifestyle needs to evolve as well. Changing the way we communicate about sustainability in general (and climate change specifically) can help us reach the ultimate goal of mainstreaming the actions that can help mitigate climate change and achieve a more sustainable future.

Higher education can play a critical role in mainstreaming sustainability not only through its research and teaching but also through the development of the thousands of new change agents—students—who graduate and enter the public sphere each year. Penn State is exposing a wider audience to sustainability by extending the story beyond energy and the environment and by highlighting the ways it is a central part of the student experience. Saying “goodbye to green” ensures that the mainstream audience doesn’t dismiss sustainability as a fringe activity.


“Global Warming’s Six Americas” illustrates that only 16% of the representative population is “alarmed” about global warming, while a nearly equivalent 13% are “doubtful” or even “dismissive” (8%). The sweet spot for communications is between these political poles and directed to the mainstream majority.

Saying “goodbye to green” means letting go of the notion that the philosophy of sustainability must be universal. Our sustainable actions can be similar even if our motivations are not. Even those who are highly engaged with sustainability are likely committed in a unique way. For some, it is only about mitigating climate change. For others it is about protecting human rights. For others still it is about conserving natural resources. It took a large council of University representatives 18 months to come up with a Penn State definition that helped broaden the notion of what sustainability is and provided a diverse array of “entry points” for the mainstream to engage with sustainability.

Sustainability is “The simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well-being for current and future generations.” —Penn State Sustainability Strategic Plan


Everett Rogers, a professor of communication studies, published Diffusion of Innovations in 1962 and proposed that different innovations (in his examples, technologies) are adopted by humans at different rates along a spectrum of personalities. As a precursor to the Yale/George Mason University project’s range from “alarmed” to “dismissive,” Rogers demonstrated that while there would always be small percentages of “innovators” and “laggards” at the margins of the scale, the vast majority lay in the middle.

If we consider the “ Innovators” and “Early Adopters” to be those already engaged with sustainability and “Laggards” to be skeptical or even dismissive, it should become obvious that to effect real change, we need to direct communications to those in the middle.

Early Adopters—16%
These individuals already have relevant knowledge and beliefs associated with sustainability and are likely to seek out stories that reinforce their commitment whether they are designated as “green” or not.

These individuals represent the general population and provide a perfect opportunity to demonstrate how sustainability applies to everyday experience. Saying “goodbye to green” ensures that this audience doesn’t dismiss sustainability as a fringe activity.

Late Adopters—16%
These individuals might be apathetic (simply don’t care) or apoplectic (politically enraged). The latter might be reached by a trusted member of their community telling a sustainability story, and the former might become engaged once the behaviors become normalized.


At Penn State, we’ve left behind the visual and textual connotations associated with “green.” We’ve extended the conversation beyond energy and the environment to include human health, happiness, and economic well-being. The color and word “green” no longer serve as an inclusive, distinguishing insignia for what sustainability has become. We’ve branded sustainability in an innovative and visually engaging way that broadens the appeal and avoids the perceptions (both good and bad) that “green” brings with it. Our visual identity system complements and integrates holistically with Penn State’s institutional brand strategy.

We’ve said goodbye to the past—no green; no trees; no sweating planet clip art—and welcomed a modern, clean, airy, style that’s thoughtful, flexible, and professional. What was “green” yesterday is “sustainable” today.


The true key to “mainstreaming” sustainability and making its associated behaviors the “norm” is to create a space in which everyone can find themselves in Penn State’s story of sustainability, whether they are students, faculty, or staff or whether they are at University Park or one of the Commonwealth Campuses.

Some audiences will respond to hard science, others to positive student experiences, and still others to school pride. Penn State is fortunate to have a variety of voices communicating research heft, institutional commitment, and student engagement around sustainability. In addition, the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment (PSIEE) and Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI) are both highlighting and providing advanced training in science communications.

The Professor
Michael Mann’s quickly comprehensible “hockey stick graph” demonstrates that communicating data-driven science through simple graphics is essential.
“There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation—if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks.”

The Field Scientist
Richard Alley makes his meticulous study of ice cores in the field (and a host of other geoscience topics) accessible to all learners through Johnny Cash–inspired YouTube videos (Seismologists Watch the Line), PBS specials, and congressional testimony.
“Many peripheral issues have become distracting flash points. The more useful discussion is—given what we know about science, economics, energy, jobs, and values—what is a good way forward?”

The Student
Joanne Vega’s international experience in the CHANCE Program (Connecting Humans and Nature through Conservation Experiences) while a horticulture undergrad at Penn State Lehigh Valley is now part of Penn State’s high school recruitment materials.
“It makes me so happy to know that I, a student, can make a difference in this world.”

The Staff
Liz Conner is a guest room attendant who collects used soap at the Nittany Lion Inn for the “Clean the World” program. The Inn has helped distribute more than 12,000 bars of soap globally and prevented 3,667 pounds of waste from entering landfills.
“I’m taking something that was being thrown away and using it to save lives. That’s a pretty gratifying part of my job.”

The Leader
Eric Barron was dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences from 2002 to 2006. When he returned to Penn State as its 18th president, the first photograph taken of him on campus was with Penn State’s Advanced Vehicle Team’s first-place EcoCAR, and he was quick to tie it (and sustainability) to the Penn State experience.
“Penn Staters get up in the morning and think about what they can do better. That’s the Penn State I remember.”

The Mascot
The Nittany Lion is the spirit and pride icon for Penn State. When the Lion recycles, composts, or pops out from the hood of a Tesla to support alternative vehicles, the student body follows.

The Reformist
Retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley went from being “a pretty hard-core skeptic about climate change” to labeling it “one of the pre-eminent challenges of our century.”
“We need to talk about people, not polar bears.”


Penn State has 50 different marketing and communications offices with 350 staff who feed stories into Penn State News (the University’s primary news outlet) representing their respective colleges, Commonwealth Campuses, and administrative/support units. “Sustainability” is one of the “tags” in the content management system.

A “sustainability story” is one that aligns with our Penn State’s definition of “ the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well-being for current and future generations.” Penn State’s Sustainability Institute works with news writers to ensure that we have a mix of stories that reach the broadest audience spectrum.

Each week, the Mainstream sustainability newsletter features stories pulled directly from Penn State News and linked from external media. The number and variety of contributing writers, stories, units, colleges, and campuses grew exponentially from 2012–2014.

In 2012, there were 52 sustainability stories in Penn State News written by 29 communicators from 21 units (including 2 colleges).

The number of sustainability stories in 2013 nearly sextupled to 293. The number of communicators more nearly quadrupled to 115. And the number of units those communicators represented more than doubled to 55 (including 9 more colleges).

2014 has shown the greatest growth of all. We had 410 sustainability stories written by 140 communicators from 46 units.

Today, all of Penn State’s 12 colleges (and 16 of its Commonwealth Campuses) are represented in the sustainability story, and sustainability is increasingly part of the way the University markets its educational experience.

Mainstream also features weekly grant opportunities, which we use to expand the conversation about the types of research with a sustainability impact. To date, we’ve posted grants from 17 different agencies.

How are you helping to “mainstream” sustainability through communications?
Post your comment below or email us at


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How are you helping to “mainstream” sustainability through communications?
Post your comment below or email us at