The following is a conversation between Dune Ives, Executive Director of Lonely Whale, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: There are some 20,000 environmental groups in this country. But one that has really captured people’s imagination is Lonely Whale. And to find out how they have done it, and what they are up to, it’s a pleasure to have with us their executive director, Dune Ives.
Good evening, Dune, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Dune: Hello, and thank you so much for having me.
Denver: So, Lonely Whale is not just some catchy name. There actually is a lonely whale swimming around somewhere in the Pacific. Tell us about him; and why is he so lonely?
Dune: That’s right. There is a whale. It’s thought to be a cross between a blue and a fin whale that has been swimming the Pacific Ocean, presumably his entire 35 to 40 years by himself, calling out at a frequency of 52 hertz that no other whale has been known to call out before or since he was found. He’s putting out a whale’s call for companionship because that’s the theory, and so one can imagine that his entire life, he’s calling for companionship, never once hearing a call back. And all the while, what we’re doing as humans is we’re making it really hard for him to survive, let alone, thrive when eventually, hopefully, he finds his one true love. And that was the genesis of Lonely Whale. People, once they heard the story, came together and wanted to know what they could do. How could they be a part of this? How could they really help this lonely whale survive and find companionship? Because, really, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about– is connecting.
Denver: Yeah. What is the importance of the ocean to our survival, and particularly, how it relates to climate change?
Dune: Well, the ocean is our great carbon sink that most people don’t even recognize that it exists on a daily basis. It’s thought that the ocean has absorbed about 90% of our carbon emissions. It gives us every second breath that we take, and it provides food for us– a billion people around the world– with seafood. And so, what we’re doing right now to the ocean is we’re making it hot. We’re making it acidic. We are experiencing now: about 90% of the world’s fisheries either fully fished or over-fished. And so, we’re really at a tipping point with whether or not the ocean can continue to sustain life as we know it.
So we don’t talk to you like a scientist would. What we do is we talk to you the way that you need to hear a message in order to pay attention and to really break through all the noise that is out there right now.
Denver: Yeah. You know, despite all of that, people don’t particularly care about the ocean as much as they should. But you’ve been able to connect with them in a very special way. What do you attribute that success to?
Dune: At Lonely Whale, we wanted to approach ocean health a little differently than maybe other NGOs have in the past. So instead of talking like scientists all over science space, and instead of talking like NGOs, although we are an NGO, we took a different tact. And that was… to talk and act like a leading corporate brand might– trying to sell you something like a pair of tennis shoes or a t-shirt or a car. What we’re really trying to sell, by using integrated marketing tactics and campaign tactics like a global corporate brand would, is we’re trying to sell you a healthy ocean. So that means we take a little bit more of a light-hearted approach, still being very science-based with a grounded call to action that has measurable impact.
But we speak to you the way that you want to be spoken to. So we don’t talk to you like a scientist would. What we do is we talk to you the way that you need to hear a message in order to pay attention and to really break through all the noise that is out there right now. So every day, there is something serious happening in our world. So, how do you break through with a message about ocean health and give people something that they can do to feel really powerful every day, that they are making a difference? And that’s really what Lonely Whale is grounded in. It’s a very simple clear call to action, delivered to you in a way that you can hear it, and in a way that encourages you and supports you in becoming involved and being part of the solution.
Denver: Well, let’s take an example of one of those, and I guess if there’s any such thing as a gateway plastic, it would be straws. And you have had an incredibly successful campaign addressing that issue just in the way you described. Tell us about it.
Dune: Oh, that pesky little plastic straw. When we looked at all the ocean threats out there, and unfortunately, the list is long. Pick one. Pick anything, and you’ll make a difference. But we decided to focus on plastic pollution because it’s the one thing that connects us every single day. It is almost impossible to go about your daily business without coming into contact with single-use plastic, especially single-use plastic that either can’t or isn’t recycled; and that includes the single-use plastic straw. So, when we looked at developing a campaign to get people engaged with ocean health, we decided to start with that single-use plastic straw because for most of us, it’s not needed.
Now, there is an important segment of our population that needs a straw for sustenance, but the vast majority of us don’t need it. And so we thought, “Well, Gosh! If we could get people to stop sucking on a single-use plastic straw…” and it’s funny, “maybe we can actually make a difference in terms of making people aware of the ocean,” and then also seeing a number of single-use plastic straws begin to be removed from our daily existence. Because really, all you need is a mouth and a cup, or some vessel, and you can drink.
Denver: Well, you have a campaign and a hashtag to it was: Stop Sucking. So tell us how this worked, and who you got involved, and what the results of that were.
Dune: So #stopsucking is a campaign that we designed to really live on social media. We developed a… we call it a plastic service announcement for our PSA, and we got a bunch of actors and individuals who maybe you feel you recognize from a movie or TV shows; some of them you don’t even know. There are a few people in there who are just like you and me, just regular people, and we got them to admit on camera that they suck. That they suck every day. They suck in multiple countries. They just suck. And it was so clever that when we put it on social media, it went into more than 40 countries in just over 3 months, and it was natively localized in 25 languages. So, what that told us is that people really could see themselves in it. They could customize it for themselves. They could own it and create content that they wanted to share with people within their network. This content traveled far and wide, and it still is traveling; it’s really the campaign that keeps on giving.
At the same time though, we also launched a clever campaign where we took over an entire city. We call it Strawless in Seattle. That’s funny too. It’s from the ‘80s and ‘90s, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. And Strawless in Seattle saw millions of straws removed in just a few weeks and policy being changed by the city of Seattle, and Seattle public utilities to ban the single-use plastic straw, as well as plastic utensils that can’t be recycled. And what both of these campaigns in tandem did for the movement is, I think, they demonstrated that people care about the issue, and they also showed that change is possible on a very large scale. That Strawless in Seattle campaign gave way to policy change all over the world, and it’s been really exciting to see how much it has grown.
One thing I will share about this campaign though is, there’s often times we get the question of, “Well, aren’t you worried that people are just going to stop at straws? They’re going to do one thing and then they’re not going to do anything else?” And I have to say, the opposite is true. So, once you introduce a single-use plastic straw to somebody as a concept, what they then start doing is looking around and they see single-use plastic everywhere. And they start asking questions like, “What about that bobble head doll I get at the Mariner’s game in Seattle? And it comes in plastic that I don’t think I can recycle? Are we okay with that?” Or a restaurateur in Seattle said… so one of his managers said, “Well, what about all those clams and oysters that we get in plastic bags that we can’t recycle? That doesn’t make any sense to us.”
And so what we’ve seen is every time somebody starts the conversation around single-use plastic straws, they go to the plastic stirrer, or the pick, or the bag, or the water bottle, or the plastic bag. And so, it just allows that conversation to grow and to really take shape, and to get quite a bit of lists, not only within someone’s community, but really within their country, within the region; and then you see the conversation continue to expand around single-use plastic.
I think everybody has to make the decision that’s right for them, but ultimately, we really need to be thinking about the more than 100,000 marine animals that are thought to die every single year because of plastic entanglement or ingestion of plastic.
Denver: Yeah. Positive spillover, I think, is what they call it. How do you feel about grocery shopping? Plastic bag, paper bag, cotton tote bag? Any advice there?
Dune: Well, I always bring my reusable bag. And in my, you know, I know there’s a question going around right now, the life cycle assessment of a plastic bag versus a reusable tote or a cotton tote. My response is always, “ I haven’t seen any whale wash up on shore that has a cotton tote in its belly.” So, it depends on—so for me, I have a five-year old child. I’m not going to go to a grocery store without having something that I can bring groceries home in, and a reusable tote is the best option for us. Although, oftentimes I will say that we use some paper bags as well because we use paper bags for our trash bags instead of plastic. So, when it goes into the landfill… for the small amount that goes into the landfill from our household, it’s in a paper bag that can decompose. So, I think everybody has to make the decision that’s right for them, but ultimately, we really need to be thinking about the more than 100,000 marine animals that are thought to die every single year because of plastic entanglement or ingestion of plastic. And right now, for our ocean to remain healthy and stable and to start to rebound, we need every single one of those animals to be as healthy as they possibly can.
Denver: Absolutely. Let’s close with this. Give us another one of your campaigns. You have so many innovative things on your website. I was truly blown away. Share one of them with us that has you particularly excited right at the moment.
Dune: I’m really excited about our Ocean Heroes Bootcamp. So, this is a partnership with two other organizations, Captain Planet Foundation and Point Break Foundation, and we partner with 14 different NGOs, including the UN Environment. And at the end of June, in Vancouver, British Columbia, we are bringing together more than 300 kids from over 25 countries, including 24 states in the US, to teach them about plastic pollution and the reality of those… they teach us a lot, and to help them design their own single-use plastic pollution reduction campaigns, and then support them when they go back out into their communities.
They are going to be working with kids that are part of a larger Ocean Heroes Bootcamp program that includes meet-ups with hip hop caucus, with the UN President of the General Assembly, with the World Sailing Trust and with zoos and aquariums around the world. And to be honest, these kids give us inspiration every single day; they are tackling single-use plastics in their school cafeterias, within their communities, at a state level, with corporations. And it’s really up to us to support and nurture their needs and issues. Today’s 5th graders graduate in the year 2030 when it’s expected that we will have one ton of plastic for every ton of fish in the ocean. And so, it’s our responsibility to make sure that they can create a future that they deserve.
Denver: Well, your organization has certainly done a lot. You would think you have 300 people there, and there’s nothing like it. Well, Dune Ives, executive director of the Lonely Whale, thanks so much for being here this evening. Now, for people to learn more about the organization– you have a whole host of campaigns we didn’t even get a chance to get to– or if people want to support this work, tell us about your website.
Dune: You can go to lonelywhale.org and on the Lonely Whale website, you can click on all of our campaigns and initiatives, including Ocean Heroes and our NextWave plastics initiative, and then our next campaign, which is hydratelike.org, which is going to be very exciting and will launch very soon.
Denver: Well, can you say one word about that before you go?
Dune: We use 500 billion single-use plastic water bottles on an annual basis, and only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled. So, big opportunity. You can make a big dent in the amount of plastic that we are producing and using on a daily basis.
Denver: Stay tuned. Can’t wait to see it. Well, thanks, Dune. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Dune: Thanks so much.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.