Environmentally Responsible Living Too Expensive?

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We’re all a little too aware of the glaring gap that can exist between our words and our actions. Whether it’s preaching about healthy eating followed by a midnight cheesecake binge, or judging another mom’s parenting while also knowing you’re not perfect, either, what we say doesn’t always match up with what we do.  A new study aimed to shed light on the question – Is environmentally responsible living just too expensive?

‘Easy’ being environmentally responsible?

Wmoan riding environmentally responsible transportation

According to survey results, millennials seem to be at war with themselves when it comes to environmentally responsible thinking vs. action. Image Credit: Pavel Ilyukhin / Shutterstock

I’ve long suspected that this gap exists in environmental behavior – I’ve seen it in others and admitted it in myself – but now a new study, aptly named It Ain’t Easy Being Green.  Trulia (in partnership with Harris Poll) conducted an online survey of more than 2,000 people (aged eighteen and older) in the U.S. in March 2016 about ‘environmental consciousness in the United States.’

The survey results outline some pretty interesting findings (and some popular misconceptions about the environmental movement, too.) Through the responses, we can begin to identify the gap between environmentally responsible ideals and behavior and measure them in black and white numbers.

Gauging gaps

The survey started off strong, with fully 79% of Americans agreeing that they think of themselves as environmentally conscious, an encouraging statistic. Yet, despite over three-quarters of respondents saying that they view themselves as environmentally responsible, a mere 26% said that thinking about the environmental impact of their actions occurs in daily life beyond things like recycling or turning off the lights.

Do these two stats jive? Can two-thirds of people truly be environmentally responsible when they don’t consider the environment in their daily lives? I’d argue that this is what an environmentalist is, one who takes that perspective from an abstract concept to the forefront of their actions and allows environmental concerns to take precedence in decision making wherever possible. So why the gap between word and deed?

‘It’s just a number’

Some of it may come down to age – perhaps surprisingly, those 55 and over were far more likely to take the initiative to be environmentally friendly by buying energy-efficient appliances and making environmentally responsible upgrades to their homes.  Millennials on the other hand (those 18-34), the population segment I would have most associated with progressive environmental attitudes, seem to be at war with themselves.  They have the highest proportion of respondents both agreeing and disagreeing that they are environmentally conscious — 24% in each category.

Gender games

Also surprising to me, given the preponderance of female voices in the environmental sphere, was that female millennials were actually less likely to agree or strongly agree with the statement “I consider myself an environmentally conscious person.” Just 71% of female millennials agreed with this statement compared to 81% of millennial males.

Playing politics

Voting booth

Do politics play a role in environmentally responsible living? Absolutely. Image Credit: Burlingham / Shutterstock

Do politics play a role in environmentally responsible living? Absolutely. According the survey, both Republicans and Democrats consider themselves environmentally conscious – specifically 74% of Republicans and 85% of Democrats. When it comes to walking the talk, 94% of Democrats follow through at some point compared with 88% of Republicans. In addition, 44% of Democrats said they take the environment into consideration at least once a day compared with 31% of Republicans.

What green living actions are considered best differ between political parties as well. Democrats tend to focus more on transportation (like walking, biking and taking public transportation or driving an electric or hybrid vehicle) and Republicans tend to focus more on the home (such as making energy efficient upgrades).

Environmental education

The survey also showed that, generally speaking, when a person becomes more educated they also become more likely to identify as environmentally conscious. 84% of respondents with a college degree or higher considered themselves environmentally conscious, whereas only 79% of those with some college education and 75% of those with a high school education or less did the same.

But again, self-identification doesn’t necessarily translate into action. In an article sharing these survey findings, Trulia points out that “as the level of education increases, so does one’s income, home size and the storage space used* – the last two of which are environmental no-no.” So while those who are more educated seem to consider themselves more eco-conscious, that may not truly be the case.

A financial wall too tall to climb?

environmentally responsible electric car

According to survey results, money is considered to be a barrier to creating anenvironmentally responsible life. Image Credit: Praiwun Thungsarn / Shutterstock

Perhaps most alarming, however, was the finding that for some, money is considered to be a barrier to creating a more environmentally-friendly life.  According to Trulia,

“While some Americans believe that installing solar panels (28%) and driving a hybrid or electric car (18%) are among the best ways for someone to be environmentally responsible, few actually do so themselves (12% and 12%, respectively). Trulia believes that this is likely a result of the larger initial investments required.”

No one will argue that solar panels or hybrid cars are ineffectual at creating positive environmental change, but are they really the best ways? This misconception is, I believe, at the root of the disparity between what Americans believe and what they do when it comes to environmental issues.

If you are aware of the dangers of climate change and the need to address this burgeoning problem, you would consider yourself an environmentally conscious person. You wouldn’t be creating an intentionally negative impact by avoiding the recycling bin or driving a Hummer; basically, you’d be living the status quo. But if you also strongly believed, as many in this study do, that the most effective environmental choices you can possibly make have to do with buying things (like energy efficient appliances, 51%; energy efficient home upgrades, 51%; or installing alternative energy source, 32%) it’s not hard to see how your actions would quickly fall behind your beliefs — you might come to believe that you simply can’t afford to live the environmentally friendly life you’d like.

Tellingly, this hunch is supported by the fact that cost-effective or cost-saving environmentally friendly options like carpooling, living in a smaller house, or buying used instead of new only accounted for 25%, 16% and 13% of respondents strongly agreeing with their environmental effectiveness, respectively.

“Based on the survey findings, we here at Trulia believe that most people want to do what is best for the environment, but there are clear time, convenience, and cost limitations that are also evident from responses. The degree to which these limitations push people away from a more green way of living is strongly affected by how they agree or disagree that they are environmentally conscious.  If changing minds on the environment is hard, then changing behavior is even harder. But ultimately, the answer to global environmental problems probably won’t come in the form high efficiency washers and TVs. Instead it will come more from collective changes in personal choices and behavior and improved efficiency. As it relates to housing, this involves careful consideration of where you live relative where you work, play and learn, how much space is enough and what you fill that space with.” – It Ain’t Easy Being Green

See the full report for more details and statistics.

It’s not what you buy, by-gosh

This study illuminates a misconception I’ve been struggling to dispel for quite some time: being green isn’t about what you buy, it’s about what you do. And absolutely, eco tech like energy efficient appliances or solar panels represents a fantastic way to be environmentally conscious, but it’s also a very expensive way, and something only accessible to a certain socio-economically advantaged segment of the population. This does not mean that being environmentally responsible is off limits to those of us who can’t spend $20,000 on solar panels.

It is entirely possible (and I’d argue, preferable) to have an incredibly environmentally responsible life without it costing a fortune or drastically changing your life. By making your own beauty and cleaning products, shopping secondhand, reducing consumption and energy use, you’re not only saving the environment, you’re saving a ton of money, too! These small changes can have a huge impact, and they come with a far smaller price tag than a hybrid car, too.

Feature image credit: ra2studio / Shutterstock 

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Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.