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Speaking Sustainably

Accelerating the Glacial Pace of Consumer Behavior Change

<p>The 20th anniversary of one of the first large-scale studies on the green consumer shows how far we&#39;ve come -- and how very much further we have to go.</p>

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.

The good news here is that most Americans thought most of the 15 activities tested were definitely on the easy side.

So why aren't we doing more if it's not hard and if we see that consumer demand/desire for convenience is to blame for environmental problems? Consider Cara Pike's recent blog post entitled, "7 reasons why the public is not engaged on climate."

  1. We're facing an unprecedented risk: You know, the kind that's hard for our brains to process.
  2. The public is overwhelmed: It's hard to know which voices in the cacophony to trust.
  3. Fatalism has set in: people don't know what can be done, and how to be part of the solution on an individual level.
  4. Mighty Opposition: Big industries are spending big dollars to stave off the conversation and steer it in a way that benefits their interests.
  5. Science isn't 100 percent accurate: So although most scientists agree climate change is real, skeptics and deniers have latched on to their slight uncertainty as proof that the results are invalid.
  6. The conversation hasn't been about values: While facts are facts, facts don't motivate people to change. Where's the conversation about the moral imperative?
  7. Not taking the long view: Again, something our brains aren't good at.

Turns out, climate change is physically hard for our brains to think about and understand. And it's hard to actually act on because it's expensive and inconvenient. But change is also inevitable and with the right nudging, messaging, programs and tools, we'll get there.

This article originally appeared on The Shelton Group's blog.

Glacier photo via Shutterstock.

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