Are Smarter Consumers Less Green?

Two Steps Forward

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."

How's business doing? Thirty-seven percent say business and industry are fulfilling their responsibility to the environment very or moderately well. While this is still is a minority of Americans, it represents an 8 percentage point increase from 2007.

The American Climate and Environmental Values Survey (download - PDF), produced by ecoAmerica, aims to assess “contemporary climate and environmental values and motivations to provide information and insights to advocates who want to increase the effectiveness of their efforts.” Which is to say, it is designed to help the advocacy community do a better job of, well, advocating.

This year’s survey shows that clean air, clean water, and climate change have become inextricably linked with politics. “By far, the biggest predictor of how Americans feel about eco-climate issues is their political affiliation,” according to a summary published by ecoAmerica. “’Strong Republicans’ are especially weak on concerns and strong on opposition to solutions.”

The survey found that “the dour economy has not dampened desires for a prosperous future, but it has sapped support for environmentalism.” Sixty-two percent said that “Trying to be environmentally friendly is a difficult chore,” up from 52 percent in 2008. Fewer than half — 42 percent — expressed doubt that “buying ‘green’ products actually helps the environment.” Fifty-six percent agree that “Given the choice, I would rather be considered a conservationist instead of an environmentalist.” Only 19 percent disagree.

It seems that just as with politics, Americans are getting increasingly polarized over the environment:

Americans have developed solidified, distinct perceptions of environmental and climate issues. They are either “green” or not. When distinct perceptions exist, people either quickly dismiss a point of view (“it’s not me”) or quickly identify (“it is me”) and rarely pause to consider whether they have all the information. For example, many status and achievement-oriented Americans consider being close to nature a waste of time, perceiving it as traditional and feminine. Middle Americans, who fear making more sacrifices, dismiss “green” choices as those of “tree-hugger,” “Democrats” or “students” – meaning people not like them.

It may be that the "many shades of green consumers" we've described in the past has become more black and white: You're either "one of us" or "one of them."

One interesting finding by ecoAmerica is that “The majority of positive attitudes on the environment and current climate change solutions, such as wind and solar energy, are viewed as feminine. Feminine issues are passive, and passive issues do not require immediate attention. Themes of sacrifice and must-do – also perceived as feminine – are not bold solutions to climate change.”

The majority of anti-green attitudes are viewed as masculine. Problems perceived as masculine – tough problems – require immediate, bold action. Americans with masculine, anti-green attitudes, such as resentment and excuses, want big solutions. They need to know that whatever America invests in and builds will work. They want bold solutions at scale, that are visibly active, and yield significant, visible progress. They are not attracted to solutions that cut off energy supply when days are cloudy or windless. To engage more Americans, the climate “brand” must be repositioned to be masculine.

In other words, fewer daisies and babies, please. More hard hats and shovels. Protecting Mother Earth, it turns out, is a man’s job.