Incisive infographic

I love this infographic on wind turbine noise (or stealthiness, depending on your perspective). It’s clear, cogent and relevant.

Click here for a larger image 

Although the infographic medium is by nature concise, this one is a paragon of efficiency, using just one picture statement to make the case. No scrolling required. (Many infographics, though well done, take a couple of minutes to digest and can really test your patience.)

This one also puts arcane statistics in a familiar context, something communications pros too often forget to do. The average person hasn’t the faintest idea how loud 40 decibels are. Oh, equivalent to refrigerator at 150 meters. I get it now.

I also like the prominence of GE’s logo. We don’t have to wonder who’s behind this because they’ve already told us. If we had to search for fine print or track back the source by the URL, we’d suspect  the author is hiding something. Does the logo make the info seem canned? Not really. Sure, we know GE has a dog in this fight.  GE knows we know. They’re entitled to the floor from time to time. It’s all good.

What important message do you need to convey that might best be articulated graphically? What stats could you put in better context?

Via Treehugger

Rapid content response: can you do it?

Communications organizations need to act fast these days – like the bicycle maker that recently pounced on a green gaffe by General Motors.

Here’s how it went down.

GM put out this ad, targeted at college kids…

GM 'stop pedaling' ad

…showing a poor sap on a bike in front of a cute co-ed who was riding in a … wow, car!


…and then there was this part:

bad part

“Yep. Shameless,” wrote publisher/editor Jonathan Maus. “But just more of the same from the auto industry.”

Cyclists went ballistic. The auto company – a recent beneficiary of American tax dollars, contributor to our national debt, and the front end of a pretty big greenhouse gas supply chain – actually had the gall to promote its cars as, well, an alternative mode of transportation.

Why pedal, indeed? Why drink tap water when you can get a plastic bottle from Fiji? Why compost your leaves when you can let the garbage man take them to the landfill? Heck, why regulate carbon emissions when it’s easier just to spew?

Cyclists occupied Twitter with complaints about GM. The company quickly apologized (smart) via Twitter, shifting the blame onto college kids (dumb, but no one called them on it):

We're listening

One company in the bicycle industry, Giant Bicycles, actually made some hay with the story. The bike manufacturer came up with this take-off on GM’s ad and, within about 24 hours of the twitstorm’s beginning, posted it on Facebook.

Giant Bicycles reply parody ad

That’s quick.

The Giant post gained more than 1,000 likes and 386 shares (a pretty big share ratio). That’s solid engagement and a boost for the brand. Although Giant is admired for Toyota-like value, it doesn’t have the cachet of the Pinarello, Orbea or maybe even Trek brand. So leading the charge against GM’s foul, if only for a minute, adds an emotional dimension to Giant.

Either way, Giant’s rapid content generation feat is rare. Sure, savvy communications organizations know how to join a Twitter conversation, but quickly developing solid content like the parody ad almost never happens. Many companies and agencies still use byzantine “public relations 1.0” workflows for social content creation, review and approval – assuming they can conceive of a clever response in the first place.

Too often, it still takes a month to put out a press release. Even if social content takes half the time, this pace simply won’t work. In the age of Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, an opportunity goes cold long before you’ve had a chance to run your proposed creative response up and down the chain of command, collecting edits, suggestions and feedback at every turn. By the time the content is blessed, if it ever is, it’s worthless.

To get results in 2011, be ready to act. Faster than you ever have. Like Giant, which is said to be the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer.

So … how does a giant company like Giant get so fast on its feet?

Well, we asked them*.

CleanSpeak: First, how did you come up with the idea for your parody ad?

An Le, Giant Global Marketing Director: GM’s ad was so off the mark that it made our idea quite easy. We simply illustrated the real “reality” of what college students (and many of us) are facing these days – rising cost of fuel, congestion, and an ever-expanding waistline.

CleanSpeak: How did you get the ad done so fast?

Giant: Instead of going through our agency or design house, we did this piece in-house. It took us about two hours from conception to going live on Facebook. With Facebook, we have a quick and casual way to get a message out to our core audience, and we would not have produced this parody ad if Facebook did not exist.

CleanSpeak: Do you pull off these quick content creation feats very often?

An Le on a charity ride. Photo by Jake Orness.Giant’s An Le in a charity ride. Photo by Jake Orness.

Giant: We create content daily – be it news, videos, photos, etc. – but this is our first parody ad.

CleanSpeak: What’s your process for approving the concept and, later, the final? How many approvals?

Giant: We don’t have too many layers of management at Giant. I have final say in creative, and in creating this particular ad, our in-house designer (Nate Riffle, who sits next to me) and I bounced ideas back and forth and had it done in a couple of hours. If we work with a design agency, the process is similar but does take a bit more back and forth.

CleanSpeak: What is your secret for fast content creation?

Giant: Be quick. Avoid committee approval. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Have some guts to take chances once in a while. And don’t be malicious – do it in a spirit of fun.


* via email. They provided answers from their global marketing director in one hour and five minutes. Do your spokespeople move that fast? We got the right email address by pinging Giant’s Twitter address. That yielded another quick reply. Who’s monitoring your Twitter feed for media/blogger inquiries?

‘Zero Waste,’ but plenty of gumption!

Karina Quintans tipped the trash can toward her and looked inside: paper coffee cups, tin foil, fast food sacks and, curiously, the pruned leaves of somebody’s indoor plant. At least 80 percent of the trash in this can – clearly labeled “landfill” – was suitable for a second can a few inches to its left, the one labeled “recycling.”

We may not get our waste in the right hole, but at least now, thanks to Quintans and her friends, if you stroll the downtown area of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, you have a 50-50 chance. Until Sept. 27, you had only one option: landfill.

In a civic climate where most of us wait for the government to act, or deride it for failing to, Quintans and her grassroots group “Zero Waste Portsmouth” planned, financed, created and installed five sturdy recycling bins here in downtown Portsmouth, home of the CleanSpeak blog. Each bin has a recycling hole and a landfill hole, the latter label chosen because it describes the ugly reality of waste disposal.

Before the forklifts set those bins in place, when you visited the Port City you either stuffed your recyclables in your pockets until you got home, pirated one of the cafes’ recycling buckets, or most likely, dropped them in the trash can, sending them on a one-way trip to the landfill.

The remarkable thing is that Zero Waste Portsmouth didn’t wait for the city. Although we have curbside residential recycling, downtown street-level recycling wasn’t going into the municipal budget anytime soon. So ZWP drove the project themselves, rounding up volunteers, corporate patrons, some grant money, and some student artistic talent to make these bins a reality. The city will take over from here. Hopefully, collection costs will be offset by avoided landfill costs together with the hard-to-quantify environmental benefit.

Before the bins came, 44 percent of the city’s waste was still going to the landfill, according to Quintans, director of Zero Waste Portsmouth. Twenty-two percent was being recycled. (The rest was yard waste, concrete, bulky, etc.). The downtown area alone was sending 20 tons of trash to the landfill every year.

Zero Waste Portsmouth has an ambitious goal: living up to its name and making the landfill obsolete. As communications professionals, we love this name because what it lacks in immediate viability it makes up for in inspiration.

Admittedly, zero waste is ZWP’s long-term goal. Cutting the landfill-bound portion in half is a shorter-term one. A great first step? Just getting stuff in the right hole.

Meet Quintans and learn more about the project:


Best green TV ads of the past decade

Looking for a quick yet enriching lunch-hour diversion? Check out these riveting eco-themed commercials chosen as the past decade’s “12 most thought-provoking” by Mother Nature Network, the self-described “green CNN”).

A few observations after viewing the clean dozen:

  • Polar bears are the go-to animal for poignancy (my favorite of the bunch).
  • We used to be very earnest.
  • We lightened up.
  • We conflated consumerism and environmentalism (buy a Leaf, Prius or Audi, and you’re saving the world!)
  • Irony is okay, if you sprinkle it with touchy-feely moments.
  • Peeing in the shower is green. You don’t say.

Global investors pour money into green energy

Nothing like cool, refreshing facts to support the desperate hope for a renewable energy revolution.

New investment in green energy was up nearly one-third globally in 2010 to a record US$211 billion. That’s 32 percent above the 2009 level and more than five times that of 2004, says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Other facts from UNEP’s new report:

  • Wind farms in China and rooftop solar panels in Europe were key drivers in the investment increase.
  • China was the world leader in “financial new investment” – i.e., investment in utility-scale renewable projects and equity capital for renewable energy companies. The nation’s tally was US$48.9 billion, up 28 percent this year.
  • Developing economies (which invested US$72 billion this year) overtook developed ones (US$70 billion) in financial new investment.
  • Investments in small distributed capacity, e.g., rooftop solar, rose 132 percent in Germany to US$34 billion.
  • Costs for renewable technologies are falling.
  • Wind dominated financial new investment in large-scale renewable energy.
  • Biggest percentage jumps in overall investment were in small-scale projects, up 91 percent to US$60 billion, and in government funded R&D, up 121 percent to US$5.3 billion.

“The finance industry is still recovering from the recent financial crisis,” Udo Steffens, president of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, said in a UNEP news release. “The fact that the industry remains heavily committed to renewables demonstrates its strong belief in the prospects of sustainable energy investments.”

So there’s hope. And now facts.

More here.

To be credible, make your green message concrete

Americans want companies to be green, but they’re skeptical.

Most corporations talk a good game about environmental responsibility but don’t make significant changes, say nine in 10 Americans in a recent Gallup survey. Eight in 10 say they’re generally skeptical of corporations promoting themselves as environmentally responsible.

Deserved or not, these are failing grades. They raise the question: How could you make your company more credible on the environment?

Gallup gives us a hint. Of the following five environmental actions companies could take, respondents were asked to select the one or two most important actions:

  • conserve energy or use renewable energy sources in their manufacturing and day-to-day operations (74% said one of most important)
  • use minimal or environmentally friendly packaging (42% said one of most important)
  • reduce the carbon footprint of the product they manufacture (36% said one of most important)
  • educate consumers about environmentally friendly products and practices (25% said one of most important)
  • provide financial support for environmental causes (16% said one of most important)

There’s a pattern here. The more tangible and immediate the action, the higher its potential to convince. These findings affirm the idea that something you can touch, see and feel – e.g., wind turbines, solar panels, post-consumer cardboard evoked by renewables and green packaging – is more relevant than something that’s abstract – e.g., carbon calculations, education and funding.

Even so, abstractions can certainly be brought down to earth and warmed up.

Say your plant is reducing carbon emissions by a ton. What does that equal in something more tangible, say, car miles driven? Or something more emotional, say, respiratory disease cases averted?

If you send one percent of your revenue to an environmental organization, what is that accomplishing on the ground (e.g., how many trees are getting planted)?

If you’re educating consumers, prove they’re learning something. Why not post a video of a real person in her home happily doing the green thing because you showed her how?

If nothing else, the Gallup survey points up the fact that when it comes to greening your company, Americans are fully prepared for a whitewash. And in this case, actions don’t speak loud enough. You need the right words

So, are we done with nuclear? Follow-up post

Last week, we looked at nuclear energy from the risk perspective, i.e., deaths per terawatt-hour compared to other energy generation technologies. Given the deadliness of coal (mining and air pollution), this perspective positions nuclear as a safe and rational choice for our energy mix. But what about nuclear’s financial cost?

That alone is enough to table nuclear power indefinitely, suggests energy researcher Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in a new column. After nine harrowing paragraphs documenting nuclear’s physical risks comes the money passage, which begins:

Each dollar spent on a new reactor buys about 2-10 times less carbon savings, 20-40 times more slowly, than spending that dollar on the cheaper, faster, safer solutions that make nuclear power unnecessary and uneconomic: efficient use of electricity, making heat and power together in factories or buildings (“cogeneration”), and renewable energy.

He makes a strong case to back this up, contrasting the flows of private and public money. (Spoiler: of 66 nuclear plants listed as under construction, “zero were free market purchases.”) Read the column here.

So, are we done with nuclear?

As we pray for Japan – and their food and their water – nuclear power’s renaissance is halted in its tracks. Can the world continue to believe nuclear is cleaner than coal and more reliable than renewables?

Seven in 10 Americans have become more concerned since the earthquake about a nuclear disaster occurring in the United States, according to a Gallup poll taken four days after the catastrophe. Thirty-nine percent are now “a lot” more concerned.

It was just a year ago that support for nuclear power reached new high, with 62 percent of Americans surveyed favoring the use of nuclear energy for electricity. Last week, amid the specter of “meltdown” at Fukushima Daiichi, a mere 44 percent favored the construction of nuclear power plants in the US.

Quick caveat: this is a clean-tech communications blog, and for the purposes of this post, we’re going to remain neutral on whether nuclear is a clean technology or a blight on the planet. The label doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s both.

What is certain is that electricity demand is high. As you can see, per capita electricity use has tripled since 1960.

I don’t know anyone who loves nuclear power. Accidents are potentially cataclysmic, nuclear waste is a big issue, and now we’re hearing about tainted water in Tokyo. But I do know folks who are attached to their TVs, microwaves, stoves, refrigerators, battery chargers, toasters, and that creature comfort we call electric light. Mobile phones and computers are necessary evils, and the Internet, where we see some of the shrillest anti-nuke rants, generally works best when plugged in.

So let’s admit nuclear power is here for a reason that we consumers have created. Now let’s ask ourselves, do we really want to kill nuclear? And to what extent are we scapegoating nuclear out of sympathy for Japan’s suffering, in reaction to the wall-to-wall coverage, and in light of the potential for a nightmare?

More importantly, how many of us have the tools, time and analytical power to evaluate the risk objectively? What should be the yardstick?

Looking at the risk

The smartest comment I’ve heard on this subject comes from James Acton, a physicist with the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear policy program: “[Y]ou’ve got to realize that all forms of energy generation carry risk,” he said on CNN last week. “Nuclear carries risk as we have dramatically seen in the last couple of days. But fossil fuels also carry risk: The risk of catastrophic climate change. Renewables, which I absolutely support a lot of research and development and funding for, right now carry the risk of not being able to produce enough energy.”

Acton expounds on his comments in this even-handed opinion piece on the Foreign Policy website. Despite increasingly robust plant designs, he says the nuclear industry needs to reassess to earn the public’s trust.

“Even after the ongoing disaster in Japan, the nuclear industry is unlikely to welcome such an exercise,” he writes. “It is almost certain to argue that a whole-scale reassessment is unnecessary because existing standards are adequate. But after two earthquakes in less than four years shook Japanese reactors beyond their design limits, this argument is simply not credible. It is also self-defeating.”

The unfolding story in Japan notwithstanding, nuclear is relatively safe if history and the Next Big Future website are to be believed. Nuclear power generation kills 0.004 persons per terawatt-hour (TWh) compared with 161 for coal, according to the site’s quasi-viral March 13 post. Citing a variety of sources, it goes on to say rooftop solar (!) is 11 times more dangerous than nuclear (again, measured by the death per TWh) because roofing is one of the top 10 most dangerous occupations. Here’s Seth Godin’s chart on the Next Big Future data.

The flyspeck on the far left is nuclear. Slate offers similarly lopsided figures, saying “you’d need 500 Chernobyls” to match a year’s worth of premature deaths caused by fossil fuel-related air pollution. (But visit Huffington Post and read that Chernobyl’s horror has been vastly underplayed.)

Could it be that nuclear power is being scapegoated because of the recency of Japan’s troubles but simultaneously embraced because, well, Chernobyl is so last century? Is there something about death by nuclear that’s more fearsome than slow death by coal-related air pollution?

I don’t know. I do know I don’t want to shill for the nuclear industry. I’d prefer not to have a plant down the road in Seabrook, N.H., looking for all the world like it’s floating in the estuary. I can certainly relate to James Carroll’s poignant observation in Monday’s Boston Globe: “More than 500 nuclear power plants are in operation or under construction around the world today, with every one of them being viewed with new skepticism,” he writes. “What have we done to ourselves?”

But what if the sheer complexity of nuclear ends up quashing a worthy component of our energy mix? I guess I come down on the side of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria: Don’t rush to judgment. At least not before we unplug.

‘Don’t call it global warming. Call it climate change’

I’ve always thought this admonition a little pedantic, a cheap, phony way to separate those who supposedly truly care about the planet from those who like to speak plainly. I mean, it’s not as if the planet isn’twarming.

But I’m rethinking this. A new study out of the University of Michigan proves the words really matter. For some reason, more Americans buy into the reality of climate change than global warming.

Online survey respondents were asked the following question, of which there were two versions as indicated:

“You may have heard about the idea that the world’s temperature may have been going up [changing] over the past 100 years, a phenomenon sometimes called ‘global warming’ [‘climate change’]. What is your personal opinion regarding whether or not this has been happening?”

When referred to as climate change, 74 percent thought the problem was real.

When referred to as global warming, only 68 percent thought it was real.

Global warming’s tight conceptual linkage to temperature might be one reason for the disparity, a study author said, since “an unusually cold day may increase doubts about global warming more than about climate change.”

Researchers also found a dramatic difference in answers depending on political affiliation. On the Republican side, 60 percent said they think climate change is real, though only 44 percent said they believe in global warming. About 86 percent of Democrats thought climate change was serious no matter what it was called.

The US Environmental Protection Agency uses the more credible term. Google global warming and, though you get 32 million results, the third result is “Climate Change |US EPA.”

Coal is cheap, except when it costs $500 billion

Coal is the cheapest fuel for electricity – if you spin it right and ignore the costs of coal-related waste, health problems and environmental damage.

That’s the gist of a new report saying coal really costs the U.S. public as much as half a trillion dollars annually. If true, that is equivalent to adding 27 cents per kWh to the market cost of coal-fired electricity (2008 dollars). This perspective strengthens the case for renewables.

“Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non-fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive,” says the report in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences titled “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.”

Hidden costs of coal-fired electricity include mining deaths, climate damage, cleanup, health-care, rail fatalities, acid rain, harmful algal blooms, retardation, subsidies, abandoned lands and the “energy penalty” of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Coal is the predominant fuel for electricity generation worldwide, generating 40 percent of electricity (2005) and responsible for 30 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions.

Perhaps this information could somehow help the behavioral scientists, neuro-economists, environmental scientists and others at the Climate, Mind and Behavior SymposiumThey are trying to figure out how to take our intellectual understanding of the climate threat and get people to actually change their behaviors.

Part of the challenge “has been the assumption that science and logic will suffice in making the case for changes in human behavior,” blogs the New York Times. In the real world, gut instincts, friends and personal passions also play a role. ( has a nice overview of day one here.)