Storytelling in communicating Circular Economy

A brief overview of a Masters Thesis from Chalmers University of Technology for the Erasmus Mundus International Master’s Programme on Circular Economy. Here is a link to the full master’s thesis if you want to read more!

Circular Economy (CE) is regarded as one of the promising solutions to transition to a sustainable future. However, CE is made upon multiple schools of thought and theories, and frequently seen as a complex term with many definitions. Moreover, it is hard to explain the term to non-experts due to its developing state without a coherent understanding and technical jargon. At the same time, there is a tendency to simplify Circular Economy (CE) to “recycling, waste management, planting a tree” among the general public. This raises difficulties of communicating the term to non-experts. 

Storytelling is one of the effective ways to communicate complex and multidimensional terms and issues and can be effective to influence people. However, human behaviour is complex to have an impact on. John Thøgersen, a professor of Economic Psychology at Aarhus University and editor of the Journal of Consumer Policy, addresses how human behaviour is complex to change and how stories can be influential in this matter:

As a result, in my thesis I attempted to explore how to tell good stories about complex terms like CE and how to influence human behaviour with the help of behavioural science research findings. One of the main research questions was How can Circular Economy students, as emerging experts, craft compelling communications with the help of storytelling to popularise Circular Economy? It contained an investigation of how to become a better storyteller and how stories can influence people. 

Key points from reviewed literature, interviewed experts, and surveyed students are discussed below. Nine experts from the private sector and academia were interviewed with at least a few years of experience that combined storytelling and sustainability, circular economy, or climate neutrality. Areas of knowledge and research of interviewed experts included a wide range of different angles like ecological and social aspects of supply chain and production and ways of communicating them to consumers, storytelling of circular services and products, corporate and brand storytelling, campaigning and inspirational storytelling, and communication of scientific data with the help of storytelling, imagining futures, collaborative storytelling, science fiction, post-truth world, ethical components of storytelling and critical assessment of current discourses.

Storytelling has been showcased as an effective way to communicate complex ideas. Because stories can evoke emotions, engage new audiences, provoke thinking and reflecting, they can be powerful in persuading people, including resistant audiences, and creating a high response and action whether it concerns everyday life or perceptions of things.

It is believed that a good structure makes a good story. Interviewed experts referred to Hero’s Journey of Joseph Campbell as a popular matrix of a good story; where it has the start and the end, a hero, a mentor, and a conflict or tension that can be solved by the hero and can result in a transformation and development of the protagonist. A good story can contain a call to action, namely actions that a listener can do after hearing the story. However, a good story does not tell listeners what is right and what is wrong, but gives space for imagination, awakens listeners’ consciousness to ask important questions, and has the power to make hidden things visible. With the help of main characters’ journeys good stories can immerse listeners into new context and help to experience new situations and ideas. Therefore, a good story is one of the effective ways to place new ideas in the human brain.

Image source:

Hero’s Journey of Joseph Campbell (Neill, 2020)

There are three main points pointed out by interviewed experts that need to be addressed in relation to the current status of CE. First, it was noted that there is a crisis of imagination. Since people have never experienced carbon neutrality or “circular future in 2030”, not many can imagine it. Second, “CE is often hijacked by white middle class people”, the aspect of social justice and inclusivity was well pointed out by one of the experts. As a result, it is important to include different social groups into the conversation around CE that are often overlooked like migrants, minorities, people with disabilities, housewives, etc. And finally, there are dominant stories around the idea that current problems can easily be solved with technological fixes. As one of the interviewed experts mentioned “it is a matter of finding the right innovation or technology”. 

Obsession with economic growth and overuse of limited planet resources is another dominant story that was highlighted during interviews. This is not a surprise, because humankind has passed periods of Circularity 1.0 and 2.0 “Techno-fixes to waste” not a long time ago, between 1945 and 1980 (Friant et al., 2020), where CE was majorly understood through waste management, recycling, and technological solutions. Starting with “Circularity 3.0” (Friant et al., 2020), a discourse of holistic social-ecological-economic understanding began, and it is developing currently. As a result, in order to improve understanding of how planet systems work, to help diminish destructive stories of consumerism, ownership, and growth at the expense of the planet’s resources, and to shift mindsets, we need more diverse beneficial stories (Stibbe, 2015). Beneficial stories can explain the complexity of current issues and solutions. During interviews, mentioned examples of beneficial stories were projects from Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Doughnut Economics of Kate Raworth.

It is not easy to change human behaviour or influence mindsets. This section covers some factors that can influence human behaviour and good to bear in mind before creating a story. Basic human drivers like needs, values, limitations; automatic and emotion-driven mental processes; cultural learnings and social norms can have a great effect. How people understand the world around them is greatly impacted by cognitive capacity: biases, traumas, and different learnings based on their life experiences and hardships. There are limitations like “limited time and financial resources, limited energy for volition and self-control, limited knowledge about problems and solutions, limited skills and task-specific knowledge” (Thøgersen, 2014).

Emotions that inhibit and facilitate purposeful action (Ganz et al., 2010)

Moreover, human behaviour is emotion-driven, however not all emotions can facilitate action in people. There are emotions that act as catalysts, whereas others can be barriers to change. For example, hope can infuse curiosity and inspire people to explore new ways, this can lead to intentional action (Ganz et al., 2010). Hope, together with belief, inspires one to make a difference and with empathy can drive into action. A habitual routine – inertia – can keep people ignorant, but urgency and anger can create the space and move into a new action. Fear can paralyze into thinking that inaction is the best choice and can provoke hopelessness. More details on how to influence human behaviour can be found in Sitra’s S.H.I.F.T. review and framework for encouraging environmentally sustainable consumer behaviour and in the Shift 1.5 Method book – a kit of different methods to inspire and enable people to live more sustainable everyday lives.

As a result, when creating effective stories, storytellers should understand their audiences, this includes their values, needs, wants, limitations, the context, and cultural and social factors that might be influencing them. For example, talking about the negative impacts of plastics on the oceans and hoping that a person will quit consuming plastic, when they work two jobs and barely have time for a bottle of Pepsi and a McDonalds burger for lunch, would not create a big impact. This might be because they are focusing on their primary needs like providing for their family, and therefore unable to connect the plastic pollution to their daily lives. An effective story to tell to these audiences might be by addressing their basic needs like how they might save money while purchasing reusable options. Another example can be addressing their values related to health; what can be healthier for them and their family: fast food packaged in layers of packaging or pre-cooked lunch brought from home? 

Moreover, knowing what emotions to evoke in listeners in order to shift their behaviours is another important element to consider while creating a powerful story. Would a story about a sad polar bear or a story about people who suffered from cyclones attract and influence the audience from East Asia more when describing the climate crisis? More details that can be included in a story are covered in the further section.

After learning from literature, interviewed experts, a survey, and conducted workshops with CE students, suggestions were created, adjusted, and designed into a toolkit. The toolkit illustrates steps as a circular journey that can prepare emerging CE experts to consider questions that need to be addressed before talking or creating stories about CE to the general public.

The visual structure of the toolkit (Link to the toolkit) is based and inspired by Hero’s Journey of J. Campbell (Campbell, 2004). The understanding of a “Known” and “Unknown worlds” means, a CE emerging expert identifies what is already known to them:

1) who they are as a storyteller,

2) what circular values they have,

3) what their goal is for the creation of the story.

Further steps are in the “Unknown world” that storytellers can to explore before creating a story:

4) who their audience is: diverse stories can be adapted to characteristics of different groups of people, specifically their needs, desires, values, limitations; and CE language needs to be adjusted accordingly. The more adapted the story to a specific group of people or person, the more listeners can resonate with it, and the more likely they are going to pass the told story on and popularise it.

5) what is suggested to include in the story: after learning about step 4 and 5 storytellers can embrace developments in their thinking if they are attentive and open to their audience’s information and suggestions received.

6) And lastly, step 6 is the story creation. It is up to a storyteller to choose what behaviour they want to influence and what emotions they want to evoke with a story they would like to create.

Created by Author via Canva

These steps are important to address for emerging CE experts, who are open to passing from a “Known world” into the “Unknown world” in order to become better in telling stories and conveying messages. The process is not linear, one can always come back to the previous steps for reconsideration. The toolkit provides a preparation to CE emerging experts before starting conversations around CE or to remind  aspects to consider during conversations, and motivate them to rethink that a change starts with them first, before they would want to change the world and people around them. In other words, being a good and attentive listener to the audience might help the storytellers connect more with the audience and result in creating a more impactful story.

Written by: Natalya Amirova

B.A. Business Administration and Information Systems M.A. Design for Sustainability MSc. Erasmus Mundus International Master’s Programme on Circular Economy

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