I was on a flight recently, thereby increasing my carbon footprint by untold tons of CO2. The flight attendant collected my third plastic cup of the flight, in a bag that obviously was not headed towards a recycling facility. My eco-feelings were not happy ones.
Afterwards, I poked around the Internet and found the haunting art piece shown above.
What is it? It’s the one million disposable plastic cups used by airlines on flights in the U.S. every SIX HOURS.
Unfortunately, that issue is still with us. But I found that a similar issue was solved by an online petition. United Airlines was using Styrofoam cups for its coffee. Dominique Kalata, a regular person from San Francisco, started an online petition to get United to switch to paper. With 13,461 supporters, she did. United announced they were switching to paper cups.
Because it’s my decade of trying to make a positive difference for the environment, I decided to explore the broader question: Are online petitions for environmental causes worth signing?
I will save you the suspense of reading further, and answer that question right now: Yes.
Let me clarify: HELL yes.
For those toying with the idea of making a positive eco-difference in the world, please know that this is one of the easiest, most effective things you can do. Especially if everyone does it. Especially if otherwise, you were going to do nothing. And especially if it leads to more awareness of eco-problems, more eco-funding, and more eco-activism, which studies show it is likely to do.
AND – this is huge – they can be a teaching tool for your kids. That’s right. Your kids can sign online petitions. You can talk about a particular petition as a family. Dinnertime bonding? Yessiree Bob. Critical thinking? Absolutely. If your kids decide to sign a petition, they can then follow it as it gains support (or doesn’t). And hopefully, eventually, your kids can see that their signatures made a difference; that they helped do something great for the environment. Where else are you going to get a family opportunity like that?
Because really, for the lazy/busy but environmentally concerned like myself, this is the choice:
If you’re already convinced that online petitions are for you, stop reading this and go sign some!
Hey. You’re still reading. You’re worried. Or afraid. I can see your brow furrowing (you should probably turn off your device’s camera). I know what you’re thinking. Let me allay your concerns.
Concern: If I provide the info required to sign the petition, I’ll get a bunch of spam.
Response: Create a new email account just for signing petitions. Do the same for your kids. I will say that I’ve been signing lots of environmental petitions the past few months. While I do get updates, other petition alerts, and requests to help fund campaigns, it’s clear these organizations have not sold my email address to anyone else.
Concern: This will come back to haunt me somehow.
Concern: I may not understand all the nuances of this petition, and might end up petitioning for something I don’t really believe in.
Response: Stick to those petitions created by organizations you trust to know what they’re talking about. The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, TerraPass.com, National Audubon Society – all these are longstanding, reputable organizations. If they’re behind a petition, you can be pretty sure it’s been carefully thought through.
Concern: I’ll just be wasting those 5 minutes reading and signing an online petition, because I’m not sure if online petitions are effective.
Response: Online petitions do work -- certainly to raise awareness. And sometimes to get the desired result – depending on a variety of factors. And they can result in further action, which may end up getting the desired result. In any event, the 5 minutes spent are well worth it. Read on.
One way an online petition works is by raising awareness of causes and issues –
Even if the petition does not result in immediate action, the awareness it raises may prompt action down the road.
In some cases there’s evidence that the online petition directly caused the desired change. For instance, a Gatorade spokesperson told The New York Times that an online campaign against its use of brominated vegetable oil—an ingredient sometimes used as a flame retardant—led the company to speed up its planned phase-out of the product.
More often, it can’t be proved that the petition alone caused the change, although it likely played a role in bringing about the change along with other factors. See below for some examples.
Online petitions also work in that they can inspire further advocacy. According to a Pew Research Center study in 2013, nearly one in five active users on social networks said information they learned online inspired them to take further action. And a study from Georgetown University found that those who engage in social issues online are twice as likely as their traditional counterparts to volunteer and participate in events.
The success of an online petition also depends on how well it’s designed and executed. One of the biggest online petition websites, Change.org, lists the following features that make online petitions more likely to succeed:
Here are some examples of effective online petitions:
Let’s recap. Here’s what you should do:
And if by chance you decide to get even more involved – through social media, a donation or even starting your own petition, well, you can thank your start with online petitions.
In the immortal words of Elle Woods, in the epic film Legally Blonde 2, “Speak up!”
From Petitions to Decisions
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9 Viral Change.org Petitions Nonprofits Can Learn From
Slacktivism or This Generation’s Activism: Do Online Petitions Work?
Top 5 Reasons Why Online Petitions are Crucial to Your Advocacy Success