Sustainability Sista: The Power of Persuasion

How to connect with older generations on climate issues - using persuasion to overcome differences and find common ground.

with Charlotte Hall

Dear Sustainability Sista Charlotte,

How do I encourage my older family members to be more environmentally conscious without seeming preachy or putting stress / pressure on them?

I’ve been with my grandma a lot recently and she’s been asking about me trying to reduce my meat. I think she could change her habits, but she doesn’t see a need to change as she’s always lived one way.


Dear S,

This is such a good question. It’s been ping-ponging around in my head recently too, ever since I visited my grandparents a few weeks ago. They live in a traditionalist village in the middle of the German countryside.

I noticed that whenever topics like sustainability or climate change came up on TV, my grandparents literally scoffed. It was just such an outlandish concept to them that someone would want to wear vegan leather or skip school to protest the climate crisis.

It’s hard to know how to bring up a subject like that with people you know disagree with you. At best, they’ll get defensive, at worst, dismissive.

Apparently, one of the biggest problems people have when trying to persuade, is that they set out to do just that: persuade. You might think it’s a good idea to collate all your best statistics, slap them into a PowerPoint with some dystopian photographs of earth in a 100 years, and invite your family to your living room TEDx - but resist this itch. It won’t work, and it will probably just make you sad.

Instead, try having an open conversation with your grandma. Test the waters: ask her what she thinks about climate change, and don’t shoot her down if you don’t agree with what she says - ask more questions instead! Really try to get to the bottom of her beliefs: why does she think like that, where does she get her information from, and most importantly: what values motivate her point of view?

In a memorable talk, Robb Willer explains how tapping into people’s values is the most effective way to persuade someone on a political issue. I recommend you watch it (it’s only 12 minutes!), but here’s my own example too:

Even though my grandparents scoff at climate activism, they also grew up in post-war Germany. Resources were scarce and people had to make what little they had go a long way.

This value is one they still hold to this day. Every jumper with a moth hole or snag in it, gets a stitched little heart to mark the spot. Old curtains are new clothes fabric. Faulty furniture, to my carpenter grandad, is nothing less than an invitation.

They fix, recycle and upcycle everything - they just wouldn’t couch it in those terms.

In other words, even though my grandparents don’t identify with the sustainability movement, there’s an overlap of values here. The next step is getting over the disconnect.

For this, there is something to be said for sharing your enthusiasm about a subject with family members. Your grandma asking about your eating habits is at least partially out of curiosity.

In this case, instead of responding defensively, try to engage your grandma’s interest: tell her about exciting vegetarian or vegan food you’ve discovered, whether there have been any health benefits, or if it’s made you feel good about yourself.

Families differ, of course, but it’s likely that she’ll be glad to hear that her grandchild is happy, and that will give her positive associations with the subject. It might even pique her interest.

From there, you can start showing - rather than suggesting - some simple changes she could make. Cook her an easy veggie version of a meal she likes, sort her rubbish for her, ask her not to throw some things away because you want to reuse them. At the very least, it will get her thinking.

However, you should also know when to cut your losses. You can’t and won’t convince everyone to change their habits. If you’re at loggerheads with a climate crisis-denier or are struggling to find common ground, it might be worth letting the subject drop. These conversations can be really frustrating and emotional - so consider your own wellbeing too.

I hope this gives you lots of ideas for bringing older relations into the sustainability conversation. I also recommend throwing the word “persuade” at TED’s search bar, as there are some really good tips about the nitty-gritty of persuasion on there. Good luck!

With sustainable sympathies,

Sista Charlotte

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Charlotte is an English and German undergrad currently exploring the urban jungle of Berlin for her year abroad. A ferocious dreamer, writer and secret romantic, she loves exploring themes of nature and identity. She‘s not above a good verbal spat, however, and most of the time can be found debating feminist and environmental issues with her friends and family. She has previously written for imprint with her piece The Pandemic Parallel and The police don't need more power, they need more empathy.