For more than a decade, I’ve been tracking and compiling surveys of U.S. consumers on a wide range of environmental issues for an annual article like this one, typically published in the runup to annual Earth Day celebrations. (Here’s the first one, done in 2007, and the most recent, from 2019.) It’s always a daunting challenge: sorting through mind-numbing polling data to assess what’s changing and what’s not.
I’d also planned in this year’s installation to revisit my book, "The Green Consumer," published 30 years ago this month, and to reflect on what has happened over that time and where we are headed.
Suffice to say, all that’s up for grabs. It seems there’s a pandemic going around, and that’s altering the course of all of our perspectives and priorities, including when and how we spend our discretionary income. So, almost everything is changing, or at least uncertain.
Or is it?
Since I began tracking the attitudes of so-called green consumers, in 1989, consumer attitudes have stayed relatively steady through good times and bad.
The fact is, since I began tracking the attitudes of so-called green consumers, in 1989, consumer attitudes have stayed relatively steady through good times and bad: recessions and wars, Democratic and Republic administrations, rising and ebbing concerns about climate change, and 9/11 — not to mention all the other changes we’ve seen in technology, shopping and life in general.
Through all that, the story line has remained stubbornly consistent: Consumers overwhelmingly say they are concerned about such things as clean air, clean water and a changing climate. They say they want to make environmentally and socially responsible choices when they shop, and buy from companies and brands perceived to be "good," however that’s understood and defined.
But the products and brands they buy don’t change all that much. It seems we like what we like.
My own journey in this space has been somewhat fraught. Despite my early enthusiasm for the idea of consumers' voting with their dollars, I quickly became disillusioned with that promise, and more impressed with all that companies are doing to reduce waste, water, emissions, carbon intensity and toxicity. Perhaps ironically, all of those things make their products greener, even if they don't bother to make such claims. At one point, nearly a decade ago, I even suggested that green marketing, to the extent it was ever alive and well, was over.
Back in 1989, while I was writing "The Green Consumer," there appeared the first survey of U.S. consumers on environmental shopping, by the Michael Peters Group, a long-since-defunct consultancy based in New York and London. That survey found that nearly nine out of 10 American consumers — 89 percent — said they were concerned about the environmental impacts of the things they purchased. Nearly as many — 78 percent — said they would be willing to pay up to 5 percent extra for the privilege of buying a product packaged in recyclable or biodegradable materials.
Of course, we know well that only a small fraction of Americans regularly seeks out and buys green products — those that are less toxic, more energy efficient, less wasteful, etc. — or can identify (m)any green brands up and down the aisles of nearly any retailer.
Truly understanding green shopping habits is tough, given that there are no standard definitions of green products, green packaging, green brands or green consumers. That makes it pretty easy for both producers and consumers to make such claims with minimal risk — and creates lots of room for confusion and cynicism on everyone's part.
So, where are we? Below are some highlights of the latest research on green attitudes and habits. Note that with only a few exceptions, these polls and surveys were made months before the coronavirus pandemic set in, meaning that consumers likely were expecting that tomorrow would look more or less like today. As we now know, that’s all up for grabs, too.
As a result, all of these surveys are subject to further scrutiny, once the worst of the pandemic is behind us. They may still be accurate, but citizens’ environmental concerns equally could have increased or declined during the age of contagion.
With that as preamble, herewith is some of what I found:
At the dawn of 2020, before the coronavirus had migrated across many parts of the globe, public concern about the climate crisis had been steadily growing. A study released in November by Yale found that just over seven in 10 U.S. adults — "the highest percentage of Americans since our surveys began" — are "extremely" or "very" certain that global warming is happening. That’s six times more than the 12 percent who believe it is not happening.
Moreover, two out of three Americans (66 percent) said they are at least "somewhat worried" about global warming, and three in 10 are "very worried." Nearly half (46 percent) said they’ve already personally experienced some impacts.
That concern is mirrored by consumers’ self-reported shopping priorities. More than three in four Americans (77 percent) said they would prefer to purchase from brands that prioritize efforts to fight global warming over brands that do not, according to a Harris Poll conducted in February and commissioned by Sofidel, a manufacturer of tissue paper for hygienic and domestic use.
It’s not just climate. Majorities of Americans told Pew Research last fall that the federal government is doing too little to protect water and air quality or reducing the effects of climate change. A majority of U.S. adults said they are taking at least some specific action in their daily lives to protect the environment. Overall, about three-fourths of Americans (77 percent) agree that energy priorities should be in developing alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power and hydrogen technology rather than increasing U.S. production of fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, a global survey (PDF) released in February by Dutch bank ING revealed consumers’ environmental priorities. When asked, "What do you see as the most pressing problem for the environment?" 34 percent of Americans named climate change, while 29 percent cited plastic waste and 14 percent cited air pollution. Those numbers weren’t markedly different from those of Europeans (33 percent, 34 percent and 14 percent, respectively) or Australians (34 percent, 34 percent, 7 percent, respectively).Majorities of Americans told Pew Research that the federal government is doing too little to protect water and air quality or reducing the effects of climate change.
The ING report homed in on the circular economy. With good reason: Its home country, the Netherlands, has set a goal "to be completely circular" by 2050, and for "as many manufacturing companies as possible to have taken steps towards circular design of their products by 2022," according to a government website.
The Dutch don’t have a lock on environmental concern. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) agreed with the statement that "people in my country are excessively focused on consumption" and 53 percent agreed that "companies will experience consumer backlash if they do not limit their environmental impact."
Disconnect and dichotomy
But people tend to overstate their concerns and similarly exaggerate how much they do. For example, ING found 53 percent of Americans saying they "recycled an empty plastic bottle or tin can instead of throwing it into the trash" during the past year. Maybe, but the recycling rate for plastics in the United States was only 3.1 percent in 2017, the latest year for which data is available, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For metals (including aluminum, steel and "tin cans"), the rate was 8.8 percent.
If all those consumers truly did what they claim, they didn't do it very often.
A similar dichotomy was found in a survey released in February by visual media archive Getty Images. It found "a striking disconnect between intention and action around sustainability, highlighting a fundamental tension between convenience and embracing environmentally friendly practices."
Of more than 10,000 people surveyed by Getty, 92 percent said they believe the way we treat the planet today will have a significant impact on the future. But 48 percent said that while they should care more about the environment in their purchasing habits, for them, convenience takes priority.
Similarly, while 81 percent of those surveyed said they saw themselves as "eco-friendly" (whatever that means), only 50 percent actually go out of their way to buy products from firms with strong green credentials.
"Our research shows us there is an opportunity for companies and brands to help consumers bridge the gap between their attitudes and their actions," said Rebecca Swift, global head of creative insights at Getty Images. An understatement, if ever there was one.
Young shoppers could save the day. Their environmental concerns, as well as their willingness to divert from longstanding consumer habits, seem to offer promise of a generational shift. According to a study released in January by First Insight, a predictive analytics company, the oldest members of Generation Z — those born between roughly the mid-1990s and the early 2010s, the generation following millennials — are making more shopping decisions based on sustainable retail practices than even millennials and Generation X.
The study found that 62 percent of Generation Z survey participants prefer to buy from "sustainable brands," on par with millennials, compared to 54 percent of Generation X, 44 percent of the Silent Generation and 39 percent of baby boomers. Generation Z is also the most willing to pay more for sustainable products (73 percent) compared to millennials (68 percent), Generation X (55 percent) and boomers (42 percent).
Okay, boomers, time to step up.
As I said, I take much of this with a grain of salt, given consumers’ historical tendency to overstate their concern and shopping habits. And it will be fascinating to take another look later this year or early next, when the economy, presumably, will be clawing its way back to some semblance of normalcy.
According to Suzanne Shelton, whose firm, The Shelton Group, has been tracking consumers’ environmental attitudes and behaviors for years, "Everything we saw pre-COVID is just going to be heightened post-COVID." In other words, our newfound vulnerability and concern about global stresses could extend to increased attention environmental issues. Whether that concern translates into commerce is another matter.
The bottom line for now is essentially the same bottom line we’ve been tracking for decades: When it comes to green consumerism, we still talk a good game but don’t necessarily back it up with action.
In the future, it seems, we’re all model green citizens, at least in our minds.