The Evolution of US Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors

The shifting attitudes and behaviors of US consumers to environmentalismA new report titled “Twenty Year Evolution of Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors” from GfK and SC Johnson is an updated version of the groundbreaking 1990 study, “The Environment: Public Attitudes and Individual Behavior,” executed by the Roper Organization (now a part of GfK).  The SC Johnson research was the precursor to Green Gauge®, the world’s longest-running survey research program probing the appetite for green among consumers in the United States.

The report addressed the environmental attitudes, behaviors and knowledge of Americans over the past 20 years. It also addressed the role of economic uncertainty on Americans and how it impacts their green choices. Perhaps most importantly, the report investigated the influences and motivators that encourage Americans to go green.

According to the survey results, Americans claim they have increased knowledge and decreased confusion, but they have more tempered individual expectations. Almost three quarters of Americans now say they know about the environment, up from about half during the mid-1990’s. Paradoxically increased knowledge may have actually led to a tempering of expectations. Compared to the 1990 survey, fewer Americans are saying they can take big steps to protect the environment, but more are saying they can at least take small steps.

Nearly half of Americans (48%) are uncertain or don’t know what the future holds when it comes to addressing environmental problems. One-third (33%) are optimistic and 18% are pessimistic.

Although Americans think the environment is important (48%, say that concern for the environment is somewhat serious), an increasing number of Americans think we should put economic security before environmental protection. Forty-one percent agree that economic security is a primary concern, followed by environmental problems (up 13 percentage points from pre-recession 2007). A majority of Americans (52%) accept trading environmental protection for economic development to maintain their standard of living.

On the upside, compared with 20 years ago, twice as many Americans recycle, buy green products, and commute in a more environmentally friendly manner. Individuals themselves cite financial incentives and disincentives as the most effective ways of influencing behavior.

In spite of rising economic concerns, Americans say going green is (still) good business. Americans still want companies to go green, and there is evidence that they give credit to companies that do so. Almost three in four (74%) agree that a manufacturer that reduces the environmental impact of its production process and products is making a smart business decision.

When looking over the course of the past 20 years, Americans are in a much better place in terms of levels of environmental knowledge. Seventy-three percent of Americans say they know “a lot” or a “fair amount” about environmental issues and problems. That is an increase of 20 percentage points since 1995. In addition, fewer people now agree with the statement, “I am very confused about what’s good and what’s bad for the environment” (18% in 2011, down 21 percentage points since 1990).

Although Americans seem to have increased their environmental knowledge base, they have become less hopeful about their ability to impact the environment. For all the environmental problems named in both 1990 and 2011, the percentages saying that individuals can do little has gone up, while fewer now say that individuals can either do “a lot” or “nothing” about these problems.

The survey data suggests that government, business, and non-profits have room to encourage and empower Americans to take small steps towards protecting the environment. The fact that consumers increasingly feel they can at least take small steps to improve the environment has implications for business and government. Calls to personal action can induce behavioral changes. This approach is especially effective if consumers see that government and business are doing their part to protect the environment.

Economic uncertainty is casting a shadow over environmental problems. Nearly half (48%) are uncertain or don’t know what the future holds when it comes to addressing environmental problems. Men tend to be more optimistic than women about the future and not surprisingly, those with greater incomes tend to be more optimistic than those with lower incomes.

Although an overwhelming majority says they feel good when they take steps to help the environment (75%), only one in three would be embarrassed if caught not recycling (33%).

Americans say financial incentives and disincentives have a greater influence on their green behavior than peer pressure from family, friends and government. Financial incentives (49%) and penalties (49%) have a greater influence.

According to the syndicated Green Gauge results, younger Americans (generation Y) are generally more aware and engaged with environmental issues. They are also less likely to put the economy ahead of the environment and more likely to be influenced by the people around them.

Over the past 20 years, there have been some positive changes (recycling and green buying behavior) and it is worth noting that these positive behavior shifts were augured by changes initiated by government or in the marketplace.

Economic concerns have not prevented Americans from wanting companies to go green  Americans expect companies to take a leadership role in protecting the environment. When asked who should take the lead in addressing environmental problems and issues, Americans rank the Federal Government first, followed by individual Americans, Business and Industry, state governments, environmental groups, scientist/inventors, and finally, local governments.

While most Americans think going green is good business, many (63%) also say business and industry are not fulfilling their responsibility to the environment. However, compared to 1990, Americans are shifting responsibility away from companies and towards individuals and consumers.

In 1990, the top reason cited for environmental problems were directed towards business. In 2011, the top reason cited for environmental problems is that consumers are more interested in the convenience many products provide than in the effect they have on the environment.

Americans have become savvier about both environmental problems and solutions but they do not scapegoat business while letting consumers off the hook. Again, this suggests an opening for messages emphasizing shared responsibility between business and consumers.

While there has been an overall increase in Americans who report they are buying green themselves, Americans believe that consumers as a group are not willing to sacrifice for environmental protection.

There was a small decrease in the number of Americans who said that consumers aren’t willing to pay more (53% said this was a major problem in 1990 and 51% in 2011). Fewer think that companies do not develop and make available environmentally sound products (59% said this was a major problem in 1990 versus 45% in 2011). Once again, increased product availability and knowledge have helped to increase green purchasing.

Increased environmental knowledge has led more Americans to believe they can at least take some small steps to help protect the environment. Forty-six percent say they can do something about environmental problems (an increase of 8 percent from 1990).

Americans still expect businesses to be environmentally friendly despite economic hardships. Perhaps most importantly, this study suggests that with the right support from government and business, change in behavior is possible. Americans can be expected to continue greening their lives if it makes practical and financial sense.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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