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.
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?
In case you did not notice, we are all trying to do our part.
Two recent surveys suggest that the vast majority of Americans are making an effort to save energy and reduce their emissions.
In a national survey by the Energy Center of Wisconsin, 73% of respondents said that they had done something in the last year to save energy with the average respondent reporting four specific actions. The most common actions reported were installing more efficient lighting and adjusting the thermostat. Similarly, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey found:
An overwhelming majority, 89 percent, of the public reports personally doing something to try to save energy in the past year, with day-to-day actions, such as turning off lights, turning down the heat, and driving less and walking or biking more reported most often.
These are, of course, self-reports but there is evidence—like the downward trend in vehicle miles traveled and the uptick in sales of fuel efficient vehicles—that suggests Americans are taking more steps towards environmentally sustainable choices.
This is great news and it merits a big pat on the back—some positive reinforcement for everyone.
One form of reinforcement is the dollar savings associated with these actions but we know that the financial impact of an individual’s actions can be hard to see.
People need other kinds of reinforcement and experts tell us recognition is the best encouragement of all. Put simply, people need someone to notice and praise their efforts to save energy so that they feel encouraged to do even more. But when I adjust the thermostat at home to save energy my neighbors and friends are oblivious. Heck, half the people living in my house do not notice the change.
Cool Choices generates positive reinforcement through our games. Game participants report their environmentally sustainable actions (which makes those actions visible to others) and by doing so they earn points (a form of recognition) for the actions. We also use game mechanics to give people opportunities to show off their changes (via pictures, stories, etc.) and to recommend specific actions to other participants. Through the process, participants learn that others in their community share their commitment to sustainability and that, together, these individuals can achieve substantive results.
We hope others will follow our lead in celebrating change. If you are doing the right things, think about how you can make your actions more visible to those around you and, alternatively, when you see someone else doing the right thing take a moment to applaud their efforts.
It feels good to do your part but it feels even better when your community celebrates your efforts and you can see how those simple changes add up to big results.