Most of the Public Says They Consider Their Individual Environmental Impact on a Daily Basis

About 3 in 4 adults say reducing their carbon emissions, water use, waste factors into daily behaviors, purchasing
Graphic conveying environmental impacts, recycling and single use plastics
(Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Samantha Elbouez)
February 08, 2021 at 12:01 am UTC

A new series from Morning Consult explores the individual consumer’s relationship to energy and climate — by way of purchases, preferences and behaviors — as the Biden administration works to speed an energy transition with 2035 and 2050 benchmarks for decarbonization. The data is drawn from three polls of 2,200 U.S. adults each.

Other stories in the series: Support for higher fuel economy and building efficiency standards | Pinpointing consumers’ ideal price and range for a new EV | Electric vehicle holdouts fret most over charging infrastructureCost savings holds major appeal to consumers in energy-efficient appliancesAmid push to replace natural gas, public is split electrifying homes 

Key Takeaways

  • 81% of adults say reducing their waste influences their everyday behaviors, and 80% say it influences their daily purchasing decisions.

  • The shares of those who say that reducing carbon emissions and reducing water use influence them were smaller, but still comfortable majorities.

  • Democrats were more likely than Republicans to factor conservation and emission reductions into their daily life, but majorities of the latter said it is at least a minor consideration.

Whether or not policies like encouraging electric vehicle adoption and the purchasing of energy-efficient appliances find a receptive audience will depend in part on if the public sees their value. Within the lifetime of new U.S. president Joe Biden, the country has shifted from celebrating the use of disposable products as a symbol of wealth in the 1950s to fretting over the environmental impact of these same purchases today, Morning Consult polling suggests. 

New data from a Jan. 27-28 poll found that roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults consider reducing their environmental impact as either a major or minor influence on both their personal behaviors (i.e., choosing to drive less, eating less meat) and their purchasing decisions (i.e., selecting products that are more sustainably produced) on a daily basis.

(This share is likely inflated by the social desirability bias, a polling phenomenon wherein respondents tend to answer questions in a way they suspect will be viewed favorably.)  

Reducing consumption of plastics and other non-recyclables garnered particularly high levels of consideration, with 38 percent and 37 percent calling it a major influence on their everyday behaviors and purchasing decisions, respectively. 

The poll results come as campaigns against single-use plastics mount worldwide. An increasing number of cities have banned the use of plastic bags and discouraged products like plastic straws, against heightened consumer pressure -- albeit pressure that has been complicated by the demands for sterile packaging presented by the pandemic. 

A slightly smaller share of adults said lowering their individual carbon emissions was a consideration in their daily behaviors, with 27 percent saying it is a major influence and 47 percent saying it is a minor influence. This is perhaps unsurprising, given how easy to ignore these invisible emissions are, as opposed to the piles of plastic so many confront upon taking out the trash. 

The notion of a personal “carbon footprint” has been a popular one since the early aughts -- taught to children to illustrate how global warming happens and how everyone plays a part -- but it is a concept that is losing favor in some circles, given that it draws attention away from major industrial polluters by placing the focus on the comparably tiny onus of individuals.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the share of adults who say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about climate change were 12 percentage points more likely than the general public to say reducing their carbon emissions factors into both their daily behaviors and their purchasing decisions. They were also more likely to consider conservation in their water and waste habits, but by smaller margins.

And while Democrats were more likely than Republicans to factor conservation and emission reductions into their daily life, majorities of the latter said it is at least a minor consideration. Fourteen percent of Republicans said limiting carbon emissions had a major influence on their everyday behaviors, and 47 percent said it has a minor influence. Meanwhile, 38 percent of Democrats said it is a major influence and 46 percent said it is a minor influence.

The poll surveyed 2,200 U.S. adults and has a 2-point margin of error.

Lisa Martine Jenkins previously worked at Morning Consult as a senior reporter covering energy and climate change.

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