What we really care about, and how to lift sustainability’s real appeal

More pressing matters: people can be “concerned’ about many things, but what really matters to them are problems close to daily life. AAP/April Fonti

New polls frequently announce that a significant proportion of the population is concerned about an issue or willing to sacrifice for a cause, from environmental sustainability to Third World debt. These polls create the sense that there is a public mandate for action on these issues - one that businesses and governments need to follow. However, standard polls don’t accurately measure people’s true beliefs.

Polls fail for two reasons

First, many issues are subject to what’s called social response bias. Vague questions about an issue will generally elicit responses that reflect what the respondent believes is seen positively by society or the surveying organization.

Second, there is no cost to responding to a poll. Answering “I am concerned” forces no real cognitive choice on the individual. There is no consequence associated with the opinion.

Case in point: surveys always indicated that Australians were very concerned about the environment. But after the government proposed a carbon tax, support for this environmental issue quickly declined. Suddenly, people realised that their support had consequences.

My colleagues and I developed a polling methodology that makes consequences real and gets at people’s true beliefs. Our approach assesses the relative value that people place on different issues, forcing individuals to make realistic tradeoffs. In other words, rather than being asked their opinion of an issue generally, individuals have to choose among issues in a way that reveals what truly matters when something must be taken off the table.

We have polled almost 10,000 people in Australia, Germany, the UK, and the US. We’ve found basically identical results across countries. Our findings for Australia are below.

This graph outlines the relative issue salience, or importance, for Australians of 16 general categories of social, economic and political issues (underlying these categories are 113 individual issues). The graph is read as indicating the likelihood (from 0% to 100%) that when an item appears it is considered to be salient (the ratio of the numbers indicates the odds that one issue dominates another). T. Devinney

Our findings and what they mean for sustainability

We find proximity matters: people care about issues close to their daily lives. These issues of high concern include food and health, crime and public safety, access to services, equality of opportunity, and individual economic well-being. Issues that seem more distant are lower priority.

For those of us focused on sustainability, the results are reason for concern. Social and environmental sustainability are among the lower priority issues, especially when they are framed as global rather than local. In addition, people’s concern for environmental sustainability has declined dramatically over the last five years. In 2007, environmental sustainability was 4th out of 16 issues in terms of level of concern. In 2011, it was 8th out of 16 issues.

These trends are the same in the other countries we studied. A minor difference is that Americans are slightly less environmentally concerned than Australians, and Germans are slightly more concerned, with the UK in between.

It’s not clear why environmental concern is decreasing in the countries studied, although we do know the change is not related solely to the global financial crisis. It is conceivable that the high concern in 2007, the first year we studied, was unusual. In 2007, Al Gore won the Nobel Prize and an Oscar for his climate-change work; the year was a public relations watershed for the environmental movement. A real possibility is that the lower results in 2011 represent a more realistic view of people’s long-term values.

What is clear is that the global environmental movement is facing an uphill battle to keep vital sustainability issues on the agenda, against issues that appear more relevant to the individual members of our societies.

The lesson for sustainability advocates is that they need to make environmental issues as relevant to people as things like “access to medicine” or “freedom from discrimination.” Individuals will prioritise sustainability issues if they see their relevance to everyday life. With climate change, for example, people care about record-heat locally – more than they do about the fate of Arctic polar bears. They care about potential toxins in household products more than international pollution treaties. Companies should be alert to emphasising the ways that sustainability issues can hit home.

Advocates should be wary of speaking in grand terms – as with, for example, Greenpeace’s recent declaration that it is moving to a “war footing” to protect the world’s oceans. Unfortunately, ordinary people are motivated to act, not by a higher noble cause, but when they feel their basic rights and livelihood, and that of those around them, are affected.

More about our research

Our first report examines the results from over 3,000 people in Australia in 2007 and 2011. The full report is available for download here. The reports on the US, Germany and UK will be available beginning in September 2012.

Comments welcome below.