Skip to main content

20 Years of Eco-Surveys Show Americans Know More, Feel Less Empowered

1990. It was the year Iraq invaded Kuwait, setting the stage for the Persian Gulf War, and President George H.W. Bush famously raised taxes to reduce the budget deficit, reneging on his earlier campaign pledge.

1990 was also the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, an event that went international with millions of people participating. At the time, a significant portion of Americans -- nearly 40 percent -- admitted in an S.C. Johnson survey that they were very confused about what's good or bad for the environment.

Twenty years later, S.C. Johnson said, that figure has shrunk to 18 percent. What's more, Americans are more than twice as likely today to recycle than they were two decades ago, as well as buy green products and choose low-carbon commutes.

These are among the findings from a report S.C. Johnson released yesterday, "The Environment: Public Attitudes and Individual Behavior -- A Twenty-Year Evolution." It follows S.C. Johnson's 1990 report, "The Environment: Public Attitudes and Individual Behavior," the predecessor of the Green Gauge consumer survey, which is conducted by GfK Roper Consulting. S.C. Johnson described it as the world's longest-running survey of consumers' green attitudes.

So what are Americans' views on the environment and how have they changed? The results may not surprise you:

• Knowledge Grows, Belief in Power of Personal Action Sags: More than 70 percent said they know a lot or fair amount about environmental issues, but they don't seem to believe individual action will do much good. Forty-six percent said they can do "a little" to help the environment, up from 38 percent in 1990. At the same time, the percentage of people who think individuals can do "a lot" shrank to 28 percent in 2011, compared to 37 percent in 1990.

• Finger-pointing Turns Inward: Although fewer Americans believe in their own ability to effect environmental change, respondents seem to be accepting a greater share of responsibility for environmental problems. In 1990, the most frequent reason cited for environmental issues was pollution caused by factories during the manufacture of their products. Today, the top reason is more consumer interest in "the convenience many products provide than in the effect they have on the environment."

• The Pocketbook Rules: Economics can be powerful driver to impact behavior change when it comes to the environment, at least if it means people may gain or lose money. Nearly half (49 percent) of survey respondents said a financial reward or penalty is a major influence on his or her behavior to help the environment. A distant third (26 percent) influence is seeing people they know taking action. Forty-one percent said economic security trumps environmental problems, and 52 percent believe some pollution is "inevitable" if living standards are to continue to improve.

Much of this is predictable considering we're struggling to find our way out of our worse economic times since the Great Depression. Businesses, however, shouldn't turn their back on their responsibility to protect the environment, according to the survey. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of those in the survey believe that manufacturers that try to reduce their environmental footprints are "making a smart business decision." And while the percentage of Americans who said industry is doing its part for the environment has grown in recent years, more than half believe businesses aren't doing too well here, if at all.

[Editor's note: This is an updated article reflecting that Gfk Roper Consulting conducted the Green Gauge survey.]

Image CC licensed by Flickr user inevernu.

More on this topic