Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is Social Media the Missing Key in Urban Sustainability?

by Alexandra Lively

Urban sustainability examines the role of cities in helping or achieving global environmental initiatives. On October 21, 2011, Julie Cidell, a Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discussed urban sustainability and the European Union. Cidell stressed that what drives cities to commit to charters involving sustainable development, such as the Aalborg Charter or Agenda 21, comes from internal sources such as local politics, private industries, economic resources, and personal interactions between people and their neighbors. While politics and economics play a large role in sustainable development, it seems as though the power of social media is sometimes discounted as a necessary vehicle in achieving local or even national environmental goals.

Some of the best results in environmental social media come from crowdsourcing where large groups of undefined people are contacted to perform a specific task or collect information. For instance, in March 2011, the Smithsonian utilized crowdsourcing by posting a request on their Facebook page for specialists to identify 5,000 freshly collected fish specimens from Guyana for export paperwork. In 24 hours, 90% were partially or completely answered by ichthyologists. Although this is a very specific example for a specific purpose, it just shows how companies, organizations, and individuals can call upon people using social media tools to solve problems, provide information, or complete tasks.

Beyond crowdsourcing, social media can effectively provide information to the public. Meatless Monday is a campaign that has provided information about the effects on personal health and environmental sustainability when a person has a meat free Monday. Simply informing a person that if they eat meat one less day a week they would reduce their carbon footprint, minimize water usage, and help reduce fossil fuel dependence, has helped people make more informed decisions in their daily life. The US division of Meatless Monday on Twitter has 12,314 followers. On Facebook, 21,532 “like” Meatless Monday.

Providing the public with simple, doable tasks they can accomplish in their everyday life while contributing something to society has the opportunity to create change in not only locally, but also globally. The local-to-global impact is most successfully achieved through social media. For instance, Greenpeace, the largest independent direct-action environmental organization in the world, took to their Twitter and Facebook sites to expose Mattel’s sourcing of packaging materials from endangered Indonesian rainforests. The effect?

The resulting influx of hundreds comments [sic.] on Barbie’s Facebook page caused Mattel to shut off comments for days and delete any mention of rainforests. Within days, almost 200,000 e-mails complaining about producing toy packaging from rainforest materials were sent to Mattel’s offices, according to Greenpeace…After initially referring to Greenpeace’s campaign as ‘an inflammatory approach’, Mattel published a press release stating that the toy company has instructed its suppliers to no longer source from APP. Mattel also publicised that it will develop a sustainability policy which will require suppliers to commit to sustainable forestry management practices” (Source).

By simply providing information, Greenpeace allowed individuals to voice their concern and take action, which resulted in change. Social media is a critical aspect of urban sustainability through which cities can not only reexamine, but implement and change global environmental initiatives.

There are many governments, organizations, and individuals in the EU that utilize social media to expand environmental awareness and action. Some of these can be followed on Twitter or Facebook under:

  • GreenpeaceEU – Challenges and exposes EU policies and promotes solutions on the environment, climate change, energy, fisheries, agriculture, chemicals, forests, transparency, etc.
  • GreensEP – The Green political family in the European Parliament.
  • EPAIreland – The Environmental Protection Agency Ireland protects the environment through its licensing, enforcement and monitoring activities.
  • LIFE_Programme – The LIFE programme is the EU’s funding instrument for the environment.
  • CHedegaardEU – Connie Hedegaard is the EU Commissioner for Climate Action.
  • IUCN – The world’s oldest and largest global environmental network – a democratic membership union with more than 1,000 government and NGO member organizations.
  • Green_Europe – The European Environmental Bureau: Europe’s largest federation of green NGOs.
  • Foeeurope – Friends of the Earth folk in Brussels, representing people and planet, and campaigning for sustainable and just societies and the protection of the environment. 


Alexandra Lively is a first-year MA student in European Union Studies and an EU Center FLAS fellow. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Advertising at UIUC, with a double minor in Business and Communications. She graduated with High Honors and as an Edmund J. James Scholar. Her research interests include telecommunications, consumerism and trade within the EU. 

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