It’s Not Me, It’s You

There has been some hand wringing in recent days regarding findings from the National Geographic’s annual Greendex survey. Commentators read the survey and bemoan that Americans are not only more wasteful than their peers around the world, but we also don’t feel guilty about that waste.

Reading the survey results I see a slightly different explanation.

Greendex is a measure of consumer attitudes and opinions, as well as practices. Across four categories of consumer behavior (housing, transportation, food and consumption of goods), Americans ranked dead last, meaning our behaviors have greater environmental impacts than the parallel behaviors of our peers in any of the other 17 countries surveyed.

That ranking is no surprise. Our suburban, car-oriented culture is resource intensive and the US has ranked last each year since the survey began in 2008.

What seems discouraging is that just 21% of US respondents feel guilty about their environmental footprint, compared to higher percentages in other countries like India and China where people have lower footprints.  The spin has been that we’re wasteful and that we don’t care.

Looking at some of the other findings here—consistent with other recent surveys—I think there is another story.  In the Greendex survey 52% of Americans described themselves as green. So more than half of us think we are doing our part. At the same time these same US respondents said only 35% of all Americans are green.

That means that if there’s a problem in the US it’s not me it’s you.

This is consistent with the recent AP-NORC survey on energy use and attitudes where only 9% of respondents thought their usage was higher than others in their community—9%.  The rest split pretty evenly between reporting they were average or that their usage was below average.

The problem is that we are confident that we are not the problem.

Cool Choices sees this phenomenon in our work inside corporate communities. When we do baseline surveys the majority of employees report that they are doing their part to be sustainable.  When asked what portion of their coworkers share this commitment the numbers drop. Indeed, the Greendex numbers look pretty consistent with what we have seen.

And this is a problem. Actually it is multiple problems.

  • First, the perception that I’m the only one trying gives me license to try less hard going forward.  This is the ‘I’ve already done my part’ phenomena that George Marshall and others cite.
  • More importantly, though, the sense that I’m in the minority has huge implications for social norms. If I think most of my colleagues do not care about sustainability then I’m less likely to speak up when I see opportunities.
  • And, of course, I will feel less guilty about my overall impact—because it is not as big as the impacts of others around me.

Making sustainability efforts more visible—giving people proof that those around them are also trying to do the right thing—achieves multiple objectives.  It busts open the myth that I’m the only one who cares and it puts my current efforts (which might not be as green as I want to think) in context with the actions of my peers, ideally spurring me to do more.

Cool Choices achieves visibility through game systems that are transparent—so that players can see what actions other players have claimed. How can you enhance the visibility of sustainable actions in your work?

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