Earth Day and the polling of America, 2013

Two Steps Forward

Earth Day and the polling of America, 2013

Here’s the most noteworthy finding among the spring 2013 crop of surveys and polls on Americans’ environmental attitudes: “Millennials Pretend to Care About the Environment,” a headline from DDB’s most recent Life Style Study that concluded, “When it comes to being environmentally friendly, Millennials are talking the talk, but not walking the walk.”

So much for the incoming class of citizens and consumers.

That’s par for the course, it seems. My seventh annual sampling of the crop of environmental opinion data that blossoms each year in the run-up to Earth Day doesn’t offer much reason for optimism. (Here’s a link to last year’s report, which also contains links to my annual posts going back to 2007.) The overall field of surveys, as far as I can tell, has declined over the past year or so, likely reflecting a drop in interest in the topic by marketers.

Abandon hope, all ye who read on.

The DDB research compared the attitudes of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1962) with Millennials (1991-2000). They found that Boomers are significantly more likely than Millennials to say they make a strong effort to:

  • recycle everything they possibly can (66 percent vs. 53 percent)
  • separate the recyclables from the rest of the trash (64 percent vs. 53 percent)
  • use reusable grocery bags as much as possible (54 percent vs. 46 percent)

Millennials are significantly more likely than Boomers to say they use a refillable water bottle when they drink water outside of the home (54 percent vs. 46 percent), and say they own a hybrid car (8 percent vs. 4 percent) or electric car (7 percent vs. 1 percent).

“Despite the belief that the Millennial generation is particularly passionate about environmental issues, there are few, if any, differences in their level of concern about the environment or importance they place on responsible behavior versus the Boomer generation,” concluded DDB.

DDB’s isn’t the first survey that disses the Millennials’ green attitudes. “Millennial Generation Cares More About the Sustainability of Their Favorite Restaurant, Less About the Environment,” read one 2012 headline. “Younger Generation Passes on ‘Green’ to Save Cash,” read another, back in 2009.

Of course, there are some reasons for this — the dismal economy being top of the list. In 2010, Shelton Group’s Eco Pulse survey found that

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, perhaps they’ll come around. But the latest findings pour cold water on companies’ almost reflexive observations that Millennials — “by far the most analyzed, most marketed to and most intriguing generation to date,” according to Cone Inc. — want to work for and buy from socially responsible companies. I hear that claim regularly from companies, which seems to be more anecdotal than empirical.

Millennials aside, DDB’s latest research — “the nation’s longest running and largest longitudinal study of attitudes and behaviors” — touts the kinds of high levels of concern I’ve often found lacking believability. For example:

  • 83 percent of American adults say that protecting the world’s ecosystems is important, 85 percent say that recycling is important
  • 61 percent of American adults say they make a strong effort to recycle everything they possibly can

I have no doubt that these numbers reflect exactly what American adults told DDB. But the fact that six in 10 adults say they “make a strong effort to recycle everything they possible can” stretches the limits of credibility. You and I both know that very, very few people recycle "everything they possibly can."

(Of course, if you parse the question, one could see how this data could technically be true. “Everything they possibly can” could be construed to mean every material that consumers a) understand how to recycle, and b) for which they have convenient access to recycling. That could amount to a small sliver of all recyclable materials. As such, this research finding, though not subject to the FTC’s green marketing guidelines, could be labeled as misleading or even greenwash.)

Attitudes on climate change aren’t much more encouraging. Well under half of Americans (34 percent) think that temperatures in their local area have been warmer than usual this winter — compared with 79 percent who reported warmer temperatures last year, according to Gallup. The rest say temperatures have been the same (45 percent) or colder than usual (19 percent). The majority of those who perceive warmer temperatures say the change is due to global warming, while last year the majority said it reflected normal variations.

Said Gallup:

This year, the slight majority of those who perceived warmer temperatures attributed them to global warming — 20 percent of the overall sample thought that local temperatures were warmer and attributed it to global warming, while 13 percent thought they were warmer but due to normal fluctuations. Last year, those who perceived warmer temperatures were much more likely to attribute the change to normal variations. Thirty percent of the overall sample in 2012 said temperatures were warmer due to global warming, while 46 percent said they were warmer due to normal fluctuations.

Whatever the numbers, it’s pretty clear that Americans’ attitudes on this topic shift with the weather — literally. Reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s wry take on Fox News’ 2010 assertion that snowstorms in the Northeast undermined the idea that the planet was warming. "According to my Dopplest 9000, it's dark outside," he noted. "Based on this latest data, I can only assume that the sun has been 
destroyed.”

Even when there’s encouraging news about consumer attitudes, it is tempered.

The latest Cone Communications Green Gap Trend Tracker (the name itself implies an inherent marketplace problem), “a record-high 71 percent of Americans consider the environment when they shop, up from 66 percent in 2008.” And “nearly half (45 percent) of consumers actively seek out environmental information about the products they buy.”

Still, Cone found that “Americans still struggle with their role in the lifecycle of products with an environmental benefit.” While 90 percent acknowledge that it's their responsibility to properly use and dispose of products, “action isn't aligning with intent”:

  • Only 30 percent say they often use products in a way that achieves the intended environmental benefit
  • 42 percent say they dispose of products in a way that fulfills the intended environmental benefit

It seems that consumers who want to do the right thing don’t have the time, knowledge or inclination to do so.

Who’s to blame? Not surprisingly, consumers blame companies. Cone found that almost three-quarters (71 percent) “wish companies would do a better job helping them understand environmental terms.” Roughly half say they feel overwhelmed by the volume of messages in the marketplace.

As always, it’s a two-edged sword: 69 percent say “it's okay if a company is not environmentally perfect as long as it is honest," while 78 percent say “they will boycott a product if they discover an environmental claim to be misleading.”

How do you avoid misleading a consumer who is feeling both confused and overwhelmed? Cone doesn’t say.

Image by design07 via Shutterstock