by Reisa Mukamal
Beth Murray participated in last summer’s workshops on energy savings offered by aFewSteps.org, a volunteer organization whose mission is to raise awareness of energy use in the four communities of Nether Providence, Rose Valley, Rutledge, and Swarthmore. Though the workshops were edifying and appreciated, Murray observed, “We were preaching to the choir.” As one of the founders of aFewSteps.org, she thought long and hard about the challenge of reaching a wider audience. And then she hit on it: instead of holding workshops, how about throwing parties? The approaching winter holidays afforded a great opportunity. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, American households generate 25% more waste in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s–about one million extra tons of trash per week. Parties that give guests an opportunity to share ideas about making the holiday season “greener” could have an impact.
Murray held a meeting with potential hosts she knew enjoyed entertaining. “The meeting allayed my fears,” said Susan Brake, one of the attendees. “I didn’t want to be too prescriptive to others, especially since I have been a ‘slow adopter’ on environmental issues. But I saw that the parties were actually facilitated working sessions for brainstorming. I thought, ‘I could host something like this.’”
Six parties in the four towns were planned between mid-November and mid-December, with complete flexibility, from brunch to cocktails. The parties begin, as any do, with socializing. In the second hour, Murray presents practical tips for creating less waste, buying less stuff, and acting more intentionally about how we spend our time and money. “I want guests to walk away with a few doable ideas,” said Murray. One of those is how to throw waste-free parties. To that end, Murray leads by example. For her party, she purchased cotton napkins from Goodwill, borrowed wineglasses from a friend, and asked Tim Smith, the caterer, whom she met at Swarthmore’s Real Food Festival, to not use throwaway hors d’oeuvres platters. “The only remains should be leftover food,” said Murray, “which my dog will be happy to take care of.” A discussion follows the presentation, led by Murray, who is an experienced facilitator and a lecturer at Wharton.
Murray intuitively hit on a concept that has been gaining currency in the social sciences, namely, that education alone does not change behavior. According to Canadian environmental psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr, author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior (New Society Publishers, 1999), initiatives that involve direct contact with people at the community level have proven to be more effective. McKenzie-Mohr is at the forefront of an emerging field known as community-based social marketing, which seeks to identify and overcome the barriers people perceive to engaging in a given activity.
Studies have documented the positive impact that social norms can have upon people engaging in sustainable behavior. In other words, modeling works. Murray’s holiday parties will do just that. “Beth has identified concentric circles of ‘change agents,’” said Brake, “cascading the change down further into the community. I’m proud to be supporting something so important.”
This is a pilot program, and aFewSteps.org hopes for more events of this nature. If you are interested in hosting a party, please contact Beth Murray at info@aFewSteps.org.