Accelerating the Glacial Pace of Consumer Behavior Change

I've sometimes been accused of being impatient. It's true, I have to work at that one, especially when it comes to matters that seem urgent. So when I read the results this week of Gfk's report, The Environment, Public Attitudes and Individual Behavior: A Twenty-Year Evolution, it was bittersweet.

The 1990 study, originally commissioned by SC Johnson and Company, was one of the first large-scale consumer studies on sustainability in the marketplace, so I was expecting some pretty big shifts from the nascent days of sustainability to the mainstream movement it is today.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Americans Understand More but Expect Less: About 70 percent of Americans now say that they know what's good and bad for the environment (hooray!). That's a 20-point increase since 1995. We all know that knowledge alone doesn't lead to change, but in this case, increased knowledge has actually dampened individuals' perceived role in being part of the solution (sigh). Americans now are more likely to say they can't do a lot to help the environment, flocking to the middle statement – I can do a little.
  • Change is Happening: Compared with 1990, twice as many Americans now recycle (58 percent), buy green products (29 percent) and use environmentally friendly transportation. When asked why they had changed their behaviors, most said it was for the money or financial incentives (a potential conundrum) and that social influence from their friends and family played an important but lesser role. Interestingly, disincentives or penalties also proved to be a popular motivator.
  • Three in four Americans say they feel good when they do something to help the environment, but only one in three would feel embarrassed if caught not recycling. (Evidence that sustainability is more about intrinsic values than social pressure?)
  • Responsibility is Shifting: In 1990, more Americans assigned blame for environmental harm at the feet of companies, and while pollution is still considered an important issue, people are now more likely to say that consumers' desire for convenience instead of environmental benefits is to blame.

Then I ran across this: a short academic article called "Changing household behaviors to curb climate change: how hard can it be?" It turns out that people think drying clothes on a clothesline (not using the dryer) five months a year is the hardest thing to do. Really? The hardest thing to do to conserve energy is to use a clothes line? Interestingly, buying a more fuel-efficient automobile and installing a more efficient heating unit were thought to be slightly less hard than that. Last time I checked, clotheslines and clothes pins were a helluva a lot less expensive than a new car or HVAC system So, clearly cost does not define degree of difficulty in this case.