This summer, I was walking back from a swim in Kits Pool (a beautiful outdoor facility here in Vancouver, BC). The venue is an in-your-face reminder of the natural beauty of our West Coast environment, and the value of preserving it through careful stewardship. Affixed to the closest concession stand I spotted one of these grumpy can stickers from Encorp Canada with this message: “Every can you don’t recycle says something about you“. I did a double-take. Encorp (Return-it) is a not-for-profit focused on the recycling of beverage containers. They provide a simple, practical solution and they have statistics to show that they are making progress and achieving goals related to diverting used products from landfills or incineration. However their messaging may be damaging their ability to see even better results. The problem is that Encorp’s campaign is everything you shouldn’t do to communicate and influence people to change. Why is it wrong? The grumpy cans (and water bottles) are cute. They are colourful, cartoon-like and have exaggerated features and expressions. And, we are told the cans are unhappy because of us…more specifically because you are not recycling that pop can in your hand. But it’s Encorp who is actually in the wrong. The message is problematic because it attempts to use negative reinforcement to influence a change in behaviour. We know from studies going back to B.F. Skinner (a seminal behavioural psychologist) that punitive reinforcement (punishment) doesn’t work well to stimulate learning. Therefore punishment is not the most effective way to drive change. What does work? Positive reinforcement. How could Encorp have created a positive message with the same grumpy can characters? The cans could be grumpy because they are not being reused, or because they are about to be burnt to a crisp, or get dumped in a dirty landfill. The same campaign could use positive reinforcement to deliver a message that you would be more likely to hear, retain and act upon. People operating in the environmental sustainability world would be well served by using the methods and approaches employed used by Change Professionals in order to align, engage and step people though desired changes to habits, attitudes and behaviours. Show people how to be successful and they will be more likely to follow the lead you offer them. That’s how a grumpy can could change the world.