Are Smarter Consumers Less Green?

A pair of recent surveys suggest that as Americans get smarter on energy and environmental issues, they’re less willing to take action.

That’s what I’ve gleaned from separate surveys from the polling firm GfK Roper and the nonprofit ecoAmerica. Both are updates of surveys done previously, so they offer good indications of trends. Those trends show that Americans’ knowledge of environmental issues is rising, but their sense of how much they are willing to do — and how much of a difference their actions might make — is decreasing.

The good news, says GfK, whose latest survey (download - PDF) looks back at 20 years’ worth of data, is that “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 fair amount about environmental issues and problems – up 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).”

The bad news: Increased environmental knowledge may have contributed to a reduced sense that individual action holds the solution to environmental problems. GfK found that Americans’ sense of urgency has dropped significantly. In 2007, 46 percent said their environmental concern was “very serious and should be a priority for everyone.” Today, that number has dropped to 33 percent. Meanwhile, those saying that their environmental concern is “somewhat serious, but there are other more important issues we need to address” rose from 41 percent in 2007 to 48 percent in 2011.

Moreover, a majority of Americans say they are comfortable with a tradeoff between environmental protection and economic development: 52 percent agree that “some pollution is inevitable if we are going to continue to make improvements in our standard of living.” Clearly, given our economic doldrums, with tightened budgets, high unemployment, and no clear path to salvation, environmental concerns are ranking low on the list.

Simply put, “saving the earth” has taken a back seat to “saving the day.”

GfK found that Americans seem to be motivated by carrots and sticks:

For the population as a whole, Americans say that both financial incentives (49% say this is a major influence) and penalties (49%) have a greater influence on their green behavior than pressure from family, friends and government – with celebrities having the least reported impact on green behavior.

Sorry, Ed Begley, Jr.

Their own economic concerns and environmental ambivalence notwithstanding, Americans aren’t about to give a free pass to business. They still want companies to do the right thing, and there is increasing evidence that will they give credit to companies that do so. When GsK asked to rank seven groups on who should take the lead in addressing environmental problems and issues, Americans ranked the “federal government” first, followed by “individual Americans” and “business and Industry,” all of which ranked higher than “state governments,” “environmental groups,” “scientist/inventors,” and “local governments.” Says GsK:

Not only do Americans want businesses to assume responsibility for protecting the environment, but they also see going green as good business. About three in four (74 percent) agree “A manufacturer that reduces the environmental impact of its production process and products is making a smart business decision."