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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Clean Plate Club
distributed 8/18/06 - ©2006

In the dining hall of a religious conference center, a small sign is posted next to the window where dirty dishes are returned: "Join the clean plate club." There's a valuable message about social change in those five words.

At a church camp which serves meals to hundreds of people every day, food waste is expensive. The cafeteria line and the salad bar present many enticing options, and it is tempting for visitors to load up their trays with more than they can eat.

When lots of people have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs, the budget of the conference center takes a big hit. There are higher costs for groceries, and for the labor and utilities for food preparation, and there are extra expenses for garbage disposal -- and no good comes of it at all. It is waste, all the way around.

The dining hall staff could respond to this problem with a fact-filled campaign to educate the guests about the stressed budget, and how an increase in meal charges will be required unless the waste is reduced. Or they could fall back on the classic line about "there are starving children in Ethiopia." Or they could make a point of piling bags of garbage on the front lawn to illustrate how much food is being thrown out.

But instead, they found it effective to put up a small sign. "Join the clean plate club."

"Clean plate" is a positive image. "Join the club" points to a collective effort of like-minded people. Adults who read the sign catch the implications about the careful stewardship of food and money. Kids (and the adults who are in serious vacation mode) learn that having a "clean plate" is something that we try to do here.

"Join the clean plate club" isn't heavy handed. It doesn't impose guilt. It doesn't load people down with information. And it works -- far more effectively than education.

An added note, 8/19/06: A few readers have reminded me that a different sort of "clean your plate" message has been given to many children. Many kids have been instructed to eat everything that is on the plate, even when they don't like it, want it, and had no choice about taking it. That childhood message has led to eating disorders in some adults. The message that I hope was intended by the church camp, and the one that I want to affirm, has to do with making responsible choices when food is served, not about coerced behaviors.

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Joining the club works for bigger decisions, too. I heard this story from a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Oregon.

As part of their "Green Sanctuary" program, members of the congregation were being encouraged to sign up for wind-generated electricity. This being a serious and well-planned campaign, clear goals were set for a certain number of households (45, I think) to have made a commitment by a certain date.

The many benefits of wind power were explained in worship announcements, bulletin inserts, newsletter articles and adult classes. Forms for subscribing to the alternative energy service were passed out. As the deadline approached, the reminders and the encouragement became more strident. There is no way that an active member of the church could avoid knowing about the goals, and the noble cause.

The day arrived to end the campaign, and the leaders announced that they'd been reasonably successful. After months of education and recruiting, 37 families had enrolled for the wind power -- 9 short of the goal.

Within a week after that announcement, 12 other families signed up. None of the facts about wind power had changed. But these late decisions were based on the new awareness of a large "club" of others who had made the choice. The ten families who started the campaign were not enough to make it responsible. But if there are 37 families taking part, well, then it is one of those things that we do in our church, and it is easy to sign up.

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It is difficult for many of us to admit, but not every decision is carefully considered and grounded in a rational analysis of facts. For all of us on occasion, and for many people most of the time, choices are made based on what trusted friends and communities do.

Our neighbors and colleagues, and the reputable leaders of churches and advocacy groups, can have a powerful impact on us with their endorsements and their group behavior. It is much easier to do something when we know that we're part of a club of well-meaning folk. We want to belong to the "clean plate club" and other good causes.

When we see our neighbors put out their recycling bins, we don't feel odd about making that effort to separate our trash. We're part of the club -- even if we don't know exactly how much energy is saved by reprocessing aluminum and glass, and how many trees are saved when we recycle newspapers.

The club rules and identity can, and should, be simple. "We always fasten our seat belts" or "in this office, we always turn off the computers at night" are clear-cut social norms. When a peer group speaks and acts with a clear message about their acceptable behaviors, that message carries weight, without having to give all the reasons.

In our efforts to bring about social transformation and behavior change, we'll often be more effective if we lighten up with our message. Instead of burying people in facts and ethical norms, there are times when we can just invite them to join the club.

NOTE: As the helpful book, Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing, describes, this approach to asserting social norms and building community support works best on very specific behaviors. "The clean plate club" changes how much food people take, but "the sustainable society club" is too vague to guide or motivate particular decisions.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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