The Curious Leader
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The Curious Leader

3 Easy Steps to Get People to Do More about the Environment

I think a lot of people think, “I’m only one person. How can I impact saving our environment?” And I think that’s a big mistake or a big misconception. I think we can do a lot of things personally to help the environment.” — Larry, 67, San Francisco

Figuring out how to solve the challenges facing the environment is like solving for world peace. As Larry told us, many people don’t think they can have an impact on a topic as complex as the environment where numerous behaviors are influencing a wide range of changes in the environment.

Meanwhile, the environment is worrying to a growing majority of American adults. In Ignite 360’s Navigating to a New Normal study, the percentage of adults who indicated they are worried about climate change has grown steadily from 53% in April 2020 to 58% in March 2021.

Similarly, adults 18+ who are worried about pollution have expanded from 52% to 58% in the past year.

“Even when I’m scuba diving, everywhere I go, even in the most remote places, there’ll always be plastic, on the bottom, and it affects everyone, all the marine life, and it’s just really sad.” — Jennifer 41, NYC

Diving deeper into the data, the demographic segments that had a greater percentage of concern on pollution above the 57% gen pop total include those living in urban areas (62%), Hispanics (64%), Gen Z 18–24 (62%), as well as Democrats (70%). Those less worried include younger Gen X 45–54 (52%), people living in rural areas (49%), and those identifying as Republicans (42%). The difference in political affiliation numbers is reflective of how politicized environmental issues have become in the United States.

Given the past year of pandemic-induced reflection, where trips to parks, the beach and other outdoor spaces grew in popularity, we’ve started to spend more time in nature. And with that outdoor time, it stands to reason that people are more exposed to the effects of pollution and climate change and are spending time thinking about the impact of our actions.

American adults share their concerns about the environment

Quality of Life Concerns

On a macro level, people are worried about issues related to the environment but getting them to action is a different challenge. Our qualitative interviews reveal that while there is concern about the environment, where people focus is more on the behaviors that impact their immediate quality of life, like litter and recycling.

“We walked on (our) road and we pick up the trash that people leave and gosh, you know, why do people get to be littler bugs and stuff like that? — Jennifer, 41, rural South Carolina

“I was walking through a parking lot recently…I was walking across this big open area and it was filled with trash. And it was disgusting, and I’ve been noticing how much people leave around. — Jenika, 29, Atlanta suburbs

“We recycle — even though it’d be easier to throw the yogurt container away, we make sure we put it in recycling. So we try.” — Jill, 41, Grand Rapids

“I feel like I try to recycle. I try to be responsible, but I’m not also at the level where I’m volunteering or investing in it. It’s more like just small actions.” — Jennifer, 41, NYC

Meanwhile, more specific issues like worry over single-use plastics has also increased from 38% in April 2020 to 44% in March 2021.

What actions are you taking? What gets in your way?

“Why the Hell Am I Even Doing This?”

While companies are using more recycled and post-recycled content in their packaging, the message isn’t coming through to the average consumer. That leaves them wondering if what they are doing is anything more than a proverbial drop in an ocean littered with plastic refuse.

Jill in Grand Rapids is a recycler but she does wonder … “How much is my trying gonna affect? It’s one of those things. I’m not gonna see the immediate effects. And if everyone’s not doing it, it’s not gonna make a huge difference.” This doubt tempers her resolve to do anything further. “I think we’re aware but I wouldn’t say we go out of our way to necessarily find things, or — I don’t look for the organic products. I know my floor cleaner has lots of chemicals in it that’s probably not good for the environment but it makes my floor clean, so I buy it.”

In Massachusetts, Kelvin, 56, also wonders if his wife’s efforts at recycling are making a difference. “I’m beginning to wonder like, ‘Why the hell am I even doing this?’, right? When all you hear is they package up all the recycles and ship it off to China so they can dump it into the ocean. I feel like I work for the garbage company.”

Clearly, consumers are not sure if their efforts are having any meaningful impact, which creates opportunities for companies interested in having a positive impact on the environment. That uncertainty isn’t motivating them to try very hard, so the barriers to making an effort remain high.

Do you feel like you work for the garbage company when you are picking up other people’s litter?

3 Steps to Remove Barriers and Motivate Behavior

  1. Empathize — People with higher self-reported levels of empathy and a high interest in being empathetic (about 47% of the population) indicated a greater percentage who are more likely to worry about pollution (69%) and climate change (67%) than the general population. In order to have empathy, people need help connecting how their actions today will help themselves, their kids, and others in the future. Empathy can also help companies identify what is getting in the consumer’s way and devise better solutions that are easier for consumers to execute or meet the demands of the life they have rather than the life you think they have.
  2. Educate — Use your product development and communication strategy skills to help consumers understand the value proposition as well as the reason to believe what you are asking them to do will work. Tell them what’s in it for them if your package is made from recycled PET. Some grassroots education efforts can also go a long way to provide an understanding of how community recycling programs work. Education will break down the barriers.
  3. Enroll — Using the safety precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as an example, consumers will respond to calls to action for the betterment of society. Start with those most worried about the impacts of climate change and pollution while building programs that make it easier for simple environmental measures to be taken in rural or less affluent communities. The less effort to achieve maximum benefit will be a win-win for the consumer, the community, and the environment.

Connecting to the Environment

As we move toward a world with a virtual workforce and people are able to work from remote locations, Kelsey, 31, living in Salt Lake City, observed that we are spending more time connected to a larger space — the cloud — rather than to the physical spaces around us. As she thought about the environment, she recognized it’s as much how we exist in a space as how we treat the space. Kelsey wondered “how can you connect with the community [you are staying in], if everything you are doing is [connected] elsewhere?”

She told us about her grad school classmates, many of whom are on the East Coast. They would ask her for pictures of her skiing in the Rocky Mountains. It seemed unusual to her since her classmates had never been to those mountains. “You don’t even know what this mountain is like. You’ve been on different mountains. But if I saw a picture of you there (on those different mountains), I’m not like “oh, wow, I can place myself there and really understand your experience.”

Sometimes the best moments of connectivity happen right in front of us — in our immediate, earthly environment not in our digital, cloud-based one.

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