On Writing Environmental Content for Governments

Recently, a potential customer asked us to provide an explicit editorial policy — our editorial ethos, if you will. As a B2G company, we contract with government agencies, but we are not a government agency ourselves. That got us thinking — what is our ethos, exactly, and how can we let customers know what type of content to expect from us?

First off, as a B2G that provides content for municipalities, we never engage in political promotions of any kind, such as endorsing one party or candidate over another, or asking people to call their elected officials or sign a petition. Not only would that be unethical, it’s simply not our focus as a company.

Similarly, we don’t promote the sale of specific products or services. We provide educational — not promotional — content. We don’t run ads, advertorials or sponsored content. Whenever we advise certain actions, such as opting for reusable bags over plastic or paper bags, we direct readers to multiple paths they could take. There is no right way to get ahold of a reusable bag, and there is no small number of ways, either, so we simply provide a few of the obvious options.

Generally speaking, we believe that our society can evolve into a zero waste society, and we work — and write — in support of that goal. We promote recycling, but we also know that recycling should be a last resort. First and foremost, we should be reducing what we consume, and reusing every material we can. Additionally, we aspire to zero waste principles because they minimize the following: resource extraction; pollution caused by extraction, production, shipping, consumption and end-of-life disposal; littering; and leaching of chemicals and debris from landfills and recycling facilities into water supplies.

We view our audience — the communities that our customers serve — as split into three segments based on behavioral research data. Approximately ten percent of people are truly dedicated to preserving the environment, doing whatever they can to make a difference, all the time. We hope and expect that our content makes it that much easier for these people to keep doing what they’re doing. Then there’s another ten percent at the other end of the spectrum who are unlikely to take action to preserve the environment, regardless of what they hear or know. We honestly don’t see our content as a great solution for converting these people into committed recyclers or sustainable practitioners. This is a challenge that we are intrigued by and are actively thinking about solutions for, but one that we suspect has an entirely different solution than the one we are currently offering. Our main target audience is the vast middle 80 percent of the population in between these two groups. These are the people who are willing to act, but need better direction and a little motivation first. We target this group because the greatest return on investment in education and outreach will come from the largest numbers of people who can be swayed into positive action with the right information.

That is why, when we create content for our customers’ recycling guides, blog posts, social media posts or newsletters, we prioritize visually compelling content that is clearly written and easily actionable. We want any resident or business owner to be able to look for a topic, and see tips they can carry out easily, even if they just scan the page (which is what studies show the majority of people do). Easy, actionable tips are important for the persuadable 80 percent. These people aren’t determined to try to change the world today, but they are willing to do a little something from time to time, and that is how, over time, we can move towards a culture that values reducing waste and reusing valuable materials.

We steer clear of controversial issues such as waste-to-energy incineration or clean coal. Not only would addressing these issues be complicated, it’s not even relevant to our editorial mission, which is to inform and educate residents and businesses about everyday steps they can take in their own communities. Moreover, the controversial environmental issues tend to be political in nature, and as stated above, we do not engage in political topics of any kind.

As for the quality of our content, we carefully check our sources. We don’t publish information that says electronic cigarettes are better for the environment than traditional cigarettes when that information is being propagated by companies who sell e-cigarettes. We never fall for promoting greenwashed consumerism. We find unbiased scientific information from organizations and outlets such as the National Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Nature or Scientific American. We also put careful consideration into the information and actions we’re advocating. For example, if a product is being touted as eco-friendly just because it’s made from a certain material, we don’t take that statement at face value. For something to be termed eco-friendly also requires consideration of the likelihood of it being reused, composted or recycled successfully; how much energy it took to produce the product and how much energy it will take to recycle or dispose of it; and the environmental damage and pollution it creates throughout its lifecycle, from extraction to end-of-life.

Finally, for those of you who are interested in the nuts and bolts of our editorial process, we follow AP style and license royalty-free images. Every piece of content we publish receives at least one line edit and a copyedit after it’s been written. We run link checkers daily to ensure that our customers’ sites never have broken links. Because we publish digitally, we can always change something that is inaccurate or becomes outdated, and we are dedicated to staying on the cutting edge of our industry’s knowledge. We are committed to providing our clients with the highest quality product, which means we have to maintain up-to-date content at all times.

In thinking through these editorial standards and ethics, we thought that sharing them on our blog might be useful for others in similar positions of creating green content from a government perspective. We’ve been following an unwritten set of rules for some time, but now that we have actual guidelines written up, we are already appreciating that they are helpful doing exactly that — guiding our content creation process. We invite you to check out our Stockton Recycles to see the guidelines in action. The recycling guide has zillions of examples of the clear, actionable tips referenced above. And the blog posts take a deeper dive while still focusing on simple steps that anyone can take towards moving us to a zero waste society.