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How to Talk About Sustainability With Your Family at Thanksgiving

By Joy WoodRise Writer
Nov 19, 2019

Holidays are a time when families get together, dinner is served, and Uncle Rick starts talking about how climate change is all a conspiracy. But take a deep breath, Risers! Instead of diving into the argument with gloves off (and right into an episode of family feud), here are some tips and tricks to tackle those difficult discussions about sustainability with skill and compassion (and still be excited to see everyone come Christmas).

First of all, it’s good to acknowledge that the topic of sustainability does get emotional. If you’re dialed in and worried about the current state of the climate, it can bring up a whole range of emotions. As a matter of fact, ‘climate grief’ is reported to affect mental health as much as it does physical health. So it’s no surprise that if a sustainable lifestyle is near and dear to your heart, you get, well, triggered by someone who seemingly sits on the opposite end of that spectrum.

When emotions are running high, it’s so easy to see people who don’t feel the same way as the enemy. But that starting point rarely leads to a productive conversation. As Katharine Hayhoe, Professor and Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, says that having those difficult conversations is the first step towards solving the problem. She points out that “it turns out that about three-quarters of people in the whole U.S. don’t even hear somebody else talk about climate change more than once or twice a year. And if we don’t talk about it, why would we care, if we don’t care, why would we act. So the action begins with the conversation.”

Bottom line, we need to talk about it. But how?

thanksgiving turkey

Five tips on how to talk to your family about sustainability

Tip 1 - Lead by example (no soapbox necessary)

If you’re hosting this year, this is an easy one. You can set the tone for a sustainable thanksgiving by making better choices. You don’t have to do anything more than you’re typically already doing at home. The tip is to make it all more visible, so it sparks some conversation.

Easy things you can do to role model more sustainable consumption include things like:

  • opting for a meat-free meal (tofurky lovers rejoice!),
  • making the side dishes the stars
  • feature local, organic vegetables
  • having the compost container easily visible (along with the recycling bins).

Once you start fielding the ‘whys’ around your choices, you’ve got a perfect entry into a conversation. Best of all? Once it’s all over and everyone has a great memory of Thanksgiving, it can have a long-lasting impact. On how a sustainable holiday is can be normal, enjoyable, and not a drag.

Not your year to host? Offer to bring some side dishes and plan the least carbon-heavy method of travel. Bringing your dinner contribution in plastic-free containers and going meatless can be subtle ways of showing a sustainable mindset. If you notice recyclables going into the trash, put a bag out and offer to sort them later at home. Yes, we are indeed creatures of habit, but we are also copycats. Leading by example is a powerful way to start the conversation. No arguing necessary.

Tip 2 – Find a common thread

You know your family better than anyone. Find a way to connect with them over issues that you know they care about. People are more open and relaxed when they feel connected.

And they’re more likely to feel aligned with something that affects them directly. Think about people’s passion points. Does Uncle Rick adore frogs? Start there. Casually mention that you read that global warming is negatively affecting frogs. You’re more likely to find yourself in an authentic, connected discussion that can gently touch on sustainability topics than an all-out argument. The connection is key. 

Tip 3 – Use hope instead of fear

The subtle art of motivating people uses hope as a powerful force. Why? It’s much more useful than fear (parents are probably nodding here - anyone that’s ever had to convince a toddler to do anything already knows this). By making the situation seem dire and hopeless (cue images of starving polar bears), it shuts people down. But by talking about hopeful developments (like the new zero-waste grocery store), it can help to move people to act. Nobody wants to wade into a hopeless battle. So start on a positive note. Tell a sustainability-related story about something that inspired you. Are there exciting new developments in renewable resources in your area? Bring it up!

Tip 4 – Meet people where they are

When both parties have a shared level of awareness on a topic, the conversation flows freely and can be mutually engaging. Is mom all up to date on hemp farming? Then it’s possible to have a lively, informed discussion on the ins and outs of hemp cultivation and the bold new uses for it in everything from food to homebuilding. But if other family members are much less knowledgeable, remember: everyone has to start somewhere. Maybe the conversation could be a simple explanation as to why you aren’t eating meat, or why you choose to drive an electric car. When it comes to a massive topic like sustainability, everyone is at different stages of awareness. If you make a point to acknowledge where people are, you’ll have a better chance of making an impact.

Tip 5 – Keep your own emotions in check

Don’t get triggered. The last thing you want to do is show up as the evangelistic, humorless, eco-activist at the table. As soon as that happens, any chance at a productive exchange is lost. However, when we feel strongly about something, our emotions do rise to the surface. Combat this by remembering to breathe. A good, deep breath can soothe strong emotions. And if you find yourself getting swept away? Take a break. Offer to do some dishes. Or even head out for some fresh air.

The Takeaway

It’s a fact that concerns around sustainability can be deeply polarizing, and even tend to fall along political lines. And wherever on the spectrum you are, you probably already know that avoiding the topic is not an option. But a conversation about sustainability doesn’t have to turn into a debate. By leading by example, keeping your own emotions in check, meeting people where they are, finding common threads, and focusing on hope instead of fear, you might find yourself having a few really productive discussions on sustainability issues. And perhaps even changing a few minds in the process.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2020-06-01T14:54:20+0000
Joy Wood

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Joy Wood

Joy grew up in the natural beauty of the North Okanagan, nestled near the foot of the Monashee Mountains. Hailing from a family of home builders, both the environment and home construction became closely intertwined in her youth. Today, she and her builder hubby are raising their family in Vancouver, where she avidly follows the current sustainable construction trends as the city aims for the title of ‘Greenest City’ by 2020.