The Environment: Public Attitudes and Individual Behavior - A Twenty Year Evolution
By GfK Roper Consulting for SC Johnson
"Individuals find they can “do a little” to help the environment and make positive decisions rather than doing nothing or doing a lot. The tempering of expectations may be contributed to today’s economic reality."
Material/Activity Tested: The twenty year change in American consumers' green attitudes and how environmental knowledge affects their actions and behaviors.
Methodology: A sample of 2012 adults 18 years of age or over in the United States was interviewed for this study using the GfK Online Consumer Panel. Interviews were completed June 9 - July 5, 2011. All completed interviews were weighted to resemble the demographic characteristics of the online population age 18 years and older as defined by the MRI Fall 2010 survey weighted demos among online adults. The GfK Roper Consulting Green Gauge studies have been tracking consumer environmental attitudes and behaviors in the United States since 1992. The sample design employs an optimum allocation sample.
Note: the survey methodology has changed since the original 1990 study. GfK Roper has moved from face-to-face interviewing among 1,400 respondents to online interviewing among 2,000 respondents. As a result of these methodological changes, results from the two surveys are not strictly trendable and comparisons over time should be made with some caution. Nonetheless, the analysis does include comparisons where we believe the response data are substantively comparable and illustrative of meaningful change in opinion, regardless of the change in survey methodology.
- According to the survey results, consumer knowledge about environmental issues and problems is on the rise. Seventy-three percent of Americans say they know a lot or fair amount about environmental issues and problems -- up 20% since 1995.
- Survey results indicate that increased environmental knowledge has led to a "tempering of expectations" from Americans as to their individual potential to affect the environment. Compared to the 1990 survey, fewer Americans are saying they can take meaningful steps to protect the environment, but more are saying they can at least take small steps (e.g., drinking tap water versus bottled water, bringing their own bags to the grocery store).
- Nearly half (48%) of Americans surveyed are uncertain or don’t know what the future holds when it comes to addressing environmental problems. One-third (33%) are optimistic, with 18% pessimistic. In addition, an increasing number of Americans think we should put economic security before environmental protection. Forty-one percent agree that economic security is a primary concern, followed by environmental problems – up 13% from pre-recession 2007.
- Compared with 20 years ago, twice as many Americans recycle (58% in 2011 say they do so on a regular basis) and buy green products (29%). Respondents cite financial incentives (49%) and penalties (49%) as the most effective way of influencing their behavior. Pressure from family and friends plays an important but lesser role (26%). Organizational influence (news media, government, non-profits) have an even lesser influence -- 14% cite news media coverage influencing them to take action. 12% cite encouragement by non-profits. Celebrities were cited as least influential (7%).
- Generation Y is an important group to target for environmental action because it is generally more engaged with environmental issues. According to the survey results, Generation Y is more likely to follow the environmental records of large companies (45% of Gen Y follow the practices of companies, +5% higher than the total population) and less likely to put the economy in front of environmental issues.
"In spite of rising economic concerns, Americans still want companies to go green, and there is evidence that they give credit to companies that do so." Respondents ranked seven groups on who should take the lead in addressing environmental problems and issues. The federal government ranked first (45%), followed by individual Americans (38%) , and then business and industry (29%). Business and Industry beat out state governments, environmental groups, scientist/inventors, and local governments.
- Three-quarters (74%) of respondents agree "manufacturer that reduce the environmental impact of its production process and products is making a smart business decision." There is lesser concern that "if business is forced to spend a lot of money on environmental protection, it won’t be able to invest in research and development to keep us competitive in the international market" (29%).
- Four out of 10 (37%) say business and industry are fulfilling their responsibility to the environment very or moderately well. This represents an 8% increase from 2007. There is also evidence that Americans are more comfortable with business’ green claims. The report found that 39% of respondents say business’ claims about the environment are not accurate, compared to 2008 when 48% said that business’ claims were not accurate.
- In 1990, the top reason cited for the nation's environmental problems were directed towards business (factories and plants cause pollution when manufacturing products we use). While factory/product pollution remains an important issue for consumers, the focus has shifted toward individuals. In 2011, the top reason cited for environmental problems is "consumers are more interested in product convenience many products provide than environmental impact."
- The purchasing of green products has increased due to rising awareness and increased marketplace offerings. Compared to 20 years ago, fewer think that companies do not develop and make available environmentally sound products (59% said this was a major problem in 1990 vs. 45% in 2011).
- The cost of green products remains a concern and a deterrent. Half of all consumers aren’t willing to pay more for green products (53% said this was a major problem in 1990 and 51% in 2011) .
- Increased environmental knowledge has led fewer American consumers to believe they can take large steps towards environmental protection, but more now believe they can at least take some small steps to help protect the environment.
Americans still expect businesses to be environmentally friendly despite the country's current economic situation.
- Behavior change is possible, and Americans appear on course to continue to green up their lifestyles where it makes practical and financial sense.
- "How Americans are participating in environmental protection is shifting. For a large portion of the population it is much more about what one can do as opposed to what one can buy,” said Timothy Kenyon, director of the GfK Roper Green Gauge Report. "(Americans) want common sense environmental solutions that help them make sensible changes to their lifestyle while still not significantly impacting them financially.” Kenyon goes on to state, "Many US consumers still maintain a level of skepticism when companies make environmental claims, but we are seeing a shift in attitudes and behaviors as the perceived greenwashing, or unsubstantiated claims of environmental friendliness of everyday products, is on the wane.”
Complexity rating of original source: 1 (Complex statistical analysis scale: 1= easy, 2= moderate, 3 = difficult)
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