Earth Day and the Polling of America, 2010: Me First, Planet Later

Two Steps Forward

Earth Day and the Polling of America, 2010: Me First, Planet Later

It's April. The flowers are bursting with color, trees are coming back to life, people are smiling, walking a bit more jauntily; hope abounds. It can mean only one thing: Baseball season has begun. That, and the latest crop of pre-Earth Day surveys has invaded my in-box.

The news this year is not encouraging. The Great Recession has taken its toll, as has the "controversy" created by climate deniers -- those advocating that climate change either isn't real, or that it isn't caused by human activity, or if it is, the "fix" is too costly, especially during tough times. Interest in and commitment to environmental problems and solutions has dropped among Americans. With the exception of committed environmentalists -- a relative sliver of the populace -- the mood has switched from "What can I do to be helpful?" to "What's in it for me?"

Suffice to say, that self-centeredness makes it a tad tough to save the commons.

Herewith is the 2010 edition of what has become a (mostly annual) tradition: My assessment of what market researchers, academics, and others are finding out about Americans' desire to shop -- and live and vote -- with the environment in mind. (See previous installments here, here, and here.)

Spoiler alert: It's not a pretty picture.

"Americans are today no more environmentally friendly in their actions than they were at the turn of the century," begin the findings of a new poll from Gallup. And even the things Americans are claiming to do seem suspect. Example: A whopping 90 percent of Americans in 2010 say they are more likely to recycle household waste than any of the other environmentally friendly actions Gallup tests, the same percentage as in 2000. Frankly, I'm more than a little skeptical that nine out of ten Americans "voluntarily recycled newspapers, glass, aluminum, motor oil, or other items" in the past year, but that's what they're telling Gallup. On the other hand, if putting the plastic bottle in the right slot in a recycling bin from time to time qualifies someone to answer "yes," perhaps Gallup's finding is technically true. But talk about greenwash!

Similarly, Americans also say they're no more likely now than in the past "to engage in activist behavior to promote environmentally friendly actions by organizations, politicians, or companies," says Gallup. "Far less than half report engaging in any such actions, and again, those numbers have hardly changed over the past decade."

So, too, with those who say they have "voted for/worked for candidates because of their position on environmental issues" (28 percent in 2010); "been active in a group or organization that works to protect the environment (17 percent); or "contacted a public official about an environmental issue" (17 percent). The only appreciable change came in the number of Americans who "contacted a business to complain about its products because they harm the environment" -- they declined 39 percent since 2000.

Gallup also found that, over the past two years, Americans have "become less worried about the threat of global warming, less convinced that its effects are already happening, and more likely to believe that scientists themselves are uncertain about its occurrence." Said Gallup:

The percentage of Americans who now say reports of global warming are generally exaggerated is by a significant margin the highest such reading in the 13-year history of asking the question. In 1997, 31 percent said global warming's effects had been exaggerated; last year, 41 percent said the same, and this year the number is 48 percent.

All of which syncs with yet another Gallup finding: that Americans grew more content over the past year with the overall quality of the environment in the country. Their "excellent" or "good" ratings now total 46 percent, up from 39 percent a year earlier. Reports Gallup:

There has been a 25-point drop since 1989 in the percentage worried a great deal about air pollution, and an equal drop in worry about contamination of soil and water by toxic waste. The decline in worry over time has been rather dramatic for some of these threats. For example, in 1989, 72 percent of Americans said they worried a great deal about pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Worry about this environmental issue averaged 62 percent in the 1990s, 54 percent in the 2000s, and is 46 percent today.

 

Those findings concur with the latest findings by the Green Confidence Index, the monthly tracking service published by GreenBiz.com. In March, it found American consumers pulling back from their earlier optimism on environmental issues, reversing a four-month trend. "The leveling off of unemployment has not translated into increased green confidence,” according to Chief Research Officer Amy Hebard of Earthsense, whose company creates the Index.

What about today's youth -- specifically, the Millennials, a.k.a. Generation Y, the 80 million or so Americans born during the last two decades of the 20th century? They've been dubbed the green generation, having come of age in an era of recycling, energy conservation, Al Gore, and Kermit the Frog. But according to the latest Eco Pulse survey, produced by the Shelton Group, "Millennials are only just starting to put their money where their mouths are," writes Shelton's Karen Barnes. She adds:

Across the board, Millennials are more likely to be talking about energy and water conservation, preservatives and chemicals in food, global warming and VOCs, but those conversations aren't producing change -- yet. Millennials are 23 percent less likely to have changed behaviors or made green purchases than the overall population.

So much for the power of youth.

Of course, one might cite the Great Recession as a key reason why Americans have slowed down (or in the case of Millennials, never sped up) on environmental habits and purchases. Indeed, a recent poll by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of Procter & Gamble found that "More adults cite saving money than any other reason why they would take measures to reduce waste, save energy and save water in their home." When asked to select the two most important reasons for taking environmentally-friendly measures, 64 percent of 1,000 adults surveyed selected saving money.

Close to three quarters (74 percent) also report they would switch to a different brand if it did not cost more and helped them reduce waste, save water or save energy in their homes.

Some surveys continue to defy economic realities -- and common sense. According to Mintel's latest report on green living, the environment remains a concern for the majority of Americans. "More than one-third (35 percent) of survey respondents say they would pay more for 'environmentally friendly' products."

That finding is hard to swallow. But it makes at least a lick of sense when one learns that "Food and beverage and personal care are the two most mature categories and account for the majority of green products in the marketplace," according to Mintel senior analyst Chris Haack. Of course: Food and beverage purchases are one place where consumers often "indulge" during tough times. Moreover, there's a reasonable chance their "environmental" concerns in this case take the form of concern over toxic residues they may be feeding their families, not necessarily the groundwater runoff, topsoil depletion, or greenhouse gas emissions associated with getting the food on their plates.

Clearly, green consumerism these days is more about self and family than community and planet. At a time of economic uncertainty, "What's in it for me?" seems to have become the tacit rallying cry of the environmentally concerned shopper. Their appetite for environmental activism has diminished inversely with concern over their incomes, home values, and pensions.

That's okay to a point. To the extent that "me first" prods manufacturers to eliminate price premiums or other trade-offs in designing and marketing products with environmental attributes, that's helpful. Even before the recession, Americans were clear about their lack of desire for trade-offs in buying green. That hasn't changed. For example, a recent survey by Accenture found that six out of 10 consumers in five countries, including the U.S., are more likely to buy a hybrid or electric vehicle "only when it is superior to gasoline-only models in every way." Accenture counsels:

So while automakers are increasingly focused on addressing the demand for greater fuel efficiency and economy they should also address those areas that continue to influence the consumer. "Green" is not enough by itself.

I concur, and have long advocated that to succeed, "green" must equal "better."

But I'm not convinced that even better products will always win in today's shaky economy. I fear that "me first" has become a handy excuse for Americans to push green shopping out of their consciousness.

I can't say my skepticism was buoyed by the findings of a recent study cited by Britain's Guardian newspaper that green shoppers are "less likely to be kind and more likely to steal."

According to the study, published in the latest edition of the journal Psychological Science by Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, people who wear what they call the "halo of green consumerism" are less likely to be kind to others, and more likely to cheat and steal. "Virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours," they write.

As the Guardian reported:

The pair found that those in their study who bought green products appeared less willing to share with others a set amount of money than those who bought conventional products. When the green consumers were given the chance to boost their money by cheating on a computer game and then given the opportunity to lie about it -- in other words, steal -- they did, while the conventional consumers did not. Later, in an honour system in which participants were asked to take money from an envelope to pay themselves their spoils, the greens were six times more likely to steal than the conventionals.

For the record, the Guardian notes that the findings have been challenged by others.

Whether or not green consumers actually are lying, conniving thieves is, at best, subject to debate. It may be that Mazar and Zhong simply amplified green shoppers' desire to look out for their own interests first, an attribute that likely doesn't separate them much from the masses.

Whatever the reality, the findings of this year's crop of surveys and polls are implicit if not explicit: Today's consumers -- young and old, idealistic and not -- aren't feeling particularly magnanimous toward Mother Nature. They have their own wants and needs, including the need to be fulfilled in an age of personal and economic sacrifices. Until they feel those needs are met, it's "Me first, planet later."

Joel Makower is Executive Editor of GreenBiz.com.

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