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Over two-thirds of US consumers feel concerned about the potential global impact of climate change. And just as many are concerned about the impact it could have on the US itself. The state of the environment hasn't improved, and in 2022 all corners of the country have been hit with extreme weather.
Most Americans view climate change as a real threat. But our research suggests that in 2023 they may, paradoxically, want to stop hearing about it. They’ll still expect brands to take action, but will likely be less willing to hear about it in the news and on social media.
Although pessimism around the environment is up since 2020, the number who actively worry about it hasn’t changed. And around a fifth of consumers are tired of hearing about the climate crisis completely.
If things don’t change we’re likely to see more climate doomism - when people believe the battle against climate change has already been lost. Even with the passing of landmark climate change bills, the idea continues to go viral.
Both news publishers and brands will have a stake in managing Americans’ feelings toward the environment in 2023.
Concerns about climate change have remained stable over the past two years, but the number who think that climate change will get worse in the next six months has significantly increased. People feel that the situation is getting worse, but their levels of concern aren’t increasing.
Put simply, many are fed up with the situation, and it’s having a knock-on effect on how they feel and what they’re doing about it – repeated exposure is causing fatigue.
And while Gen Z are the most concerned about the future of the environment, they’re also more likely than millennials to be tired of hearing about it. They’re a good example of how concern can spill over into doomism.
Next year’s cultural context is important. After two years of being locked down and languishing, people will still be grieving the opportunities they missed out on, and trying to make up for time they lost. It’s one of the reasons why so many people booked a revenge vacation in 2021, and why worry about travel’s environmental impact has dropped 10% since Q2 2020.
Now, there’s a possible recession in the pipeline – and if the economy takes a downturn, evidence suggests concern for the environment goes with it, as consumers prioritize other things. Our Work data also shows that businesses' biggest challenges next year will be less about becoming more sustainable and more about managing the economic climate.
Not only do Covid-19 and a possible recession have an impact on climate attitudes, they’re a pair of crises occupying the headlines alongside the war in Ukraine, abortion rights, and mass shootings.
If we add climate change into the mix, it could all become too much for some people.
We can see this in our data too. People's interest in news and current affairs is down since Q2 2020. In April 2022 a quarter said they were spending less time reading the news since the pandemic started to manage their mental wellbeing, and the climate is another topic likely to see consumers switch off for the sake of their health.
When it comes to taking individual action, people's behaviors are mixed. Many are choosing where to save and where to still spend, so sustainable actions could fall by the wayside while they treat themselves where they can.
That said, a number of cost-cutting behaviors people are doing will end up having a positive impact on the environment too.
Using a reusable water bottle and shopping bags are the most popular sustainable actions among consumers. These kinds of actions are likely popular because they help consumers feel like they’re playing an active role, but can also save money.
With many looking to save where possible, consumers are likely to be tempted by schemes that offer them opportunities to save money or cut back.
Historically, recycling in the US has lagged behind other countries, and just 5% of plastic waste is being recycled. But there are schemes looking to tempt consumers into disposing of their waste sustainably.
H&M, for example, has recycling boxes in stores across the globe where consumers can drop off a bag of old or unwanted clothes in exchange for a thank-you coupon toward their next purchase.
Tapping into consumers’ thriftiness is one way of squaring sustainability commitments with a poor outlook for the economy.
Importantly, it’s the kind of practical action that consumers will respect, even as they tune out of some of the coverage around climate change.
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While people are fatigued with the climate change narrative, they still expect brands to be eco-friendly – that hasn’t changed.
Consumers aren’t fed up with brands taking action on climate change – but they’ll be critical of brands that make a lot of noise with nothing to show for it.
Something that’s gaining momentum is a type of law known as extended producer responsibility. It means that producers are charged a fee, which is used to pay for recycling programs. The knock-on effect means that companies have an incentive to ensure their products are designed to be more recyclable.
It’s these little moves that put the onus on companies rather than the consumer alone. If people see brands leading from the front, they may feel more supported.
In September 2022, Patagonia reminded everyone what practical action actually looks like. Its billionaire founder, Yvon Chouinard, gave away the company to a trust that will use the profits to help fight climate change.
While most companies can’t do the same, it sets a new benchmark that can’t be ignored. And consumers will notice.
Our research shows that corporations are more trusted than the government. If they’re able to do positive things when politicians can’t, it may help break through that doomerist mindset.
That said, greenwashing is a great example of where noise from brands is actively harmful. Over a third in the US would be discouraged from buying from a brand if they made false sustainability or environmental claims.
Often brands don’t actually mean to make false claims, but miscommunication between marketers and sustainability champions can cause the same result.
News publishers also have a part to play. With so much doom and gloom in the media, it’s unsurprising that it’s impacting people’s outlook, and the climate beat will require a different approach. Research has shown that readers value more solutions-oriented journalism where the environment is concerned.
Despite being tired of hearing about climate change, people still care. In 2023, brands and publishers will need to change tack. For brands, it’s an opportunity to engage in a way that combines being eco-friendly with thriftiness, and dial back on making noise around climate change unless they can demonstrate a clear impact in what they’re doing. For media outlets it’s an opportunity to focus on solutions, not problems.
Hope isn’t lost, but brands and media publishers need to recognize the problem, adapt to it, and then lead the way.
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