Life-Cycle of an Environmentalist

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Life-Cycle of an Environmentalist

This is the 4th article in a series of 6 on how to increase your eco-influence by 60x.  This article was originally published on Feb 3, 2013.  In the original posting, I mentioned that I had shared the post with the staff at the Natural Marketing Institute for their comments.  What you’re reading today has been edited for accuracy and clarity, thanks to a phone interview with Gwynne Rogers.


After you’ve identified someone’s stage of eco-influence… established strategies appropriate for that particular stage… and laser-focused on their eco-personality type… the next step is to find out their Level of Commitment.  With it, you will know exactly the behaviors, sources of information and groups they will be receptive to you suggesting.

This is a fresh, more fundamental look at two common segments of green consumers by the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) and Jacquelyn Ottman in The New Rules of Green Marketing.

In 2002, NMI took a term LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health & Sustainability) — first promoted by a media group in 1999 and inspired by Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson’s book, Cultural Creatives — and proceeded to build an amazing body of research around it.  They continue this research to this day, keeping it timely and relevant.

Jacquelyn Ottman broke environmental consumers into 4 segments as well, writing:

[E]ven the most eco-aware consumers tend to prioritize their environmental concerns… [We] derived the segmentation from empirical evidence and offer it as a supplement the NMI segmentation to help you add relevance and precision to efforts targeting the deeper green consumers.
(page 31)

For clarity, I want to say that what I’m not doing here is tweaking NMI or Ottman’s segments.  What I am doing is distinguishing a few key characteristics from each that help us understand what neither offers — a life cycle of an environmentalist.  We’re interested in how levels of commitment change over time, for an individual.

This is because my site exists for one purpose: to help environmentalists influence people in their life to more environmentally-friendly behaviors.  NMI and Ottman help organizations reach consumers with more environmentally-friendly products.  Two related, yet very different things.

I spoke with NMI, and they have worked with Nielsen on one longitudinal study in 2008/2009 to track changes in individual green consumers relative to their 5 segments.  Although NMI segments are always presented in order — Unconcerneds, Conventionals, Drifters, Naturalites, LOHAS — NMI is not alluding to a relationship between the level of commitment one would expect from each segment — from none (Unconcerneds) to a lifestyle commitment (LOHAS).  If they did, Drifters — “green followers, relatively new to the green space, in search of easy changes” — would go right after Unconcerneds in a progression.

Natural Marketing Institute_LOHAS Segmentation_New Order

In that one year of data, they didn’t find cause to support a natural progression from one segment to the next.

What I want to point out — to those wanting to apply this research to individuals in your life — is that the NMI segments combine three things:

  1. Topic of interest,
  2. Level of commitment, and
  3. Length of time.

Topic of Interest

Naturalites are into health.  Convetionals are into resource conservation.  Jacquelyn Ottman further broke LOHAS consumers (she calls them “Deep Greens”) into 4 eco-personality types — Health Fanatics, Animal Lovers, Resource Conservators, and Outdoor Enthusiasts.  I showed in the preceding article that those 4 Eco-Personality Types are foreshadowed by an individual’s behavior in their earlier years, and can be traced back through time.

Level of Commitment

Unconcerneds are just that — unconcerned.  No commitment to the environment.  While LOHAS are active stewards of the environment, dedicated to personal and planetary health, and it is a lifestyle for them.

Length of Time

Drifters are relatively new to the green space, but want to be seen doing their part.

The NMI segmentation combines these 3 characteristics, but not uniformly.  I think it is critical for environmentalists interested in influence to understand each: topic, commitment, and time.  And longitudinal research, like that of Clare Graves, tracking natural progression of worldview shifts is incredibly valuable.

In reality, if you are predisposed to an interest in Health, you are not automatically a Naturalite.

You may start out 100% unconcerned about the environmental impacts of health.  You then try the fad-diet bandwagon, only to trade that in for a more sensible health plan after the diet loses it’s appeal.  Next, you decide that a personal feeling of high energy and alertness is worth the extra money, so shift to less-processed and fresh foods.  Finally, making a difference for soil/water quality and local economies might become your calling, so you commit to organic-certified and locally-grown foods.  You also advocated for these causes in your community.

Using NMI language would not be appropriate.  This is not a progression from Unconcerned, to Drifter (fad diet), to Conventional (health plan), to Naturalite (fresh/unprocessed), to LOHAS (organic/local/advocate).

If we pull out the eco-personality (topics of interest) embedded in the 5 NMI segments, we actually have available a new and incredibly useful timeline of 5 Levels of Commitment that can apply equally to each of the 4 Eco-Personality Types.

  1. Untapped Potential
  2. Initial Excitement
  3. Tempered Realism
  4. Personal Investment
  5. Community Investment

We all recognize the newly initiated in every group.  A new-found passion for the cause is a breath of fresh air for long-time advocates (who may be burning out).  The initial excitement can also be slightly annoying.  Their zeal is often expressed in sharing new information, but not from tested experience.

Life-Cycle of An EnvironmentalistLevel 2 and Level 5 are the two stages most often labeled “environmentalist” by the public — the high enthusiasm and engagement being the shared trait.  While a stereo-type, one way to tell the difference is age and temperament.  Level 2 environmentalists are often students and wear their emotions on their sleeve.  Level 5 environmentalists are often over 30 with a more controlled (yet very intentional) demeanor.

Here is an example of the life-cycle of a Resource-Focused environmentalist.

Level 1 / Untapped Potential

As a Resource-Focused, Level 1 (I will start using the notation Resource-1), you may have zero concern for environmental issues.  However, you may exhibit traits that allude to a resource-conservation ethic.  Maybe you’re a hoarder, never throwing anything away — just in case it may come in handy some day.

Level 2 / Initial Excitement

As a Resource-2, you may start recycling at home, and really want to tell people about it.  The behavior is new and you are excited to share.

Level 3 / Tempered Realism

Eventually, time can bring experience and maturity in the process — or frustration and failure.  Either way, a new era of tempered realism begins.  We learn what we can and can’t do easily, and we decide what we’re willing to continue doing long term.  As a Resource-3, you likely return to the fundamentals of reduce and reuse, finding ways to save money and produce less waste and recycling in the first place.  Maybe down-size your trash bin and lower your monthly waste bill a couple bucks.

Level 4 / Personal Investment

Saving money and working  a long-term plan often leads to having more financial resources.  Knowing that money isn’t the end-all-be-all, investing in your own personal health and well-being (and that of your family) starts to make a lot of sense.  If you don’t have your health, what do you have?  As a Resource-4, you may put in a garden to grow fruits and veggies, and buy a compost bin to make your own fertilizer.  More waste diverted from the landfill and fresh foods from your backyard… yum.

Level 5 / Community Investment

With enough success, passion, time and/or money, your experience often leads to sharing your story with others.  The thought of organizing in the community as a teacher or a consultant strikes your fancy.  Making a difference for others seems like the natural progression on your journey.  As a Resource-5, you may invite the neighbors over for a gardening and composting workshop, or organize a film screening of Trashed to encourage more recycling on your street.

The point of all this is as follows.

There are 4 Eco-Personality Types that environmentalists-waiting-to-happen fall into.  And within that type, there are 5 Levels of Commitment that they will begin to progress through, if influenced to do so.  With the right conditions and support, they may progress to Level 5 / Community Investment (in that type — but they may remain in lower levels in different areas).

To be as transparent as possible, my coaching, this site, and the ecofluencePRO training, all target Level 5 environmentalists.

Every level of commitment has an impact — even Unconcerneds do things that are good for the environment by accident.  My dad’s is a conservative farmer and Republican.  Imagine my surprise when his fear of flying made his ecological footprint pale in comparison to my jet-setting lifestyle in college.  Every action makes a difference.  Just because someone is starting out, doesn’t mean they don’t play a critical role in the sustainability movement as a whole.

A mature Level 5 commitment is simply the most effective place to come from in regards to conscious eco-influence — moving someone else towards more environmentally-friendly behavior (regardless of your cause of choice).

It’s not the only place to come from.  Just the most effective.  So that’s where I spend my time coaching — and this blog provides everyone with free content to move along their own journey without my one-on-one attention.


ecofluencePRO Part 3: Types & Tips go into tons of details that I can’t list here.  It includes the 5 Levels of Commitment within each Type; how to identify; and good activities, sources of information, and organizations to suggest.  It even spells out the values driving this type, which you can use to translate your own cause into a language they will resonate with.



Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

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