Already transformed? How environmentally conscious are we really?

SUV im Stau mit Aufkleber

The requirements are increasing. Whether in heating, mobility, nutrition or other areas of life: Everywhere we go, we are expected to question routines that we have practiced responsibly. There is a growing realization that this is too demanding and that the associated communication needs to be changed. A narrative of renunciation should become a story of opportunity if the transformation is to succeed. But is such a change ultimately the right way to go? And where are citizens currently on this transformation path? It may be argued that many of the relevant empirical surveys overestimate the existing willingness, whether due to selectivity or social desirability among respondents and researchers. And are supposedly proven operationalizations really resilient? These are questions that we at infas deal with almost naturally. We do not yet have a ready-made solution. But we are trying one thing or another, even with our own funds. In this article, a limited, robust self-experiment of a quantitative measurement with revealing results will be presented for discussion. Sometimes simple is better. In February 2022, while the coronavirus pandemic was still ongoing, we therefore asked 1,015 citizens directly how environmentally aware they consider themselves to be in our own ongoing multi-topic study based on a dual-frame random sample. A 10-point scale from “not at all” to “very environmentally conscious” was available. A full 10 percent chose a “10” and around 30 percent chose an 8 or 9, meaning that around 40 percent see themselves as relatively environmentally aware in this question. In contrast, only 3 percent of respondents rated themselves as a 1, 2 or 3. It is revealing that this result differs only slightly according to educational or socio-economic situation characteristics, but clearly ascends according to age groups. For this purpose, various segments are shown.

This observation already reveals a key finding: the usual suspects among the socio-structural characteristics hardly provide any explanations here. It’s more a question of generation. It is by no means the case that younger people are more focused and concerned, quite the opposite. Against the background of the rather identical results along “hard” characteristics, it can be assumed that personality and knowledge characteristics, which were not surveyed here, are among the potential explanatory factors – and should be included in comprehensive surveys in the future.

What about efforts to live in a more environmentally friendly way?

With the focus on “transformation”, the second question in our program is even more exciting than self-positioning in terms of environmental awareness. We wanted to know from the respondents on a scale of 5 how much they are personally concerned with living in a more environmentally conscious way. If the subjective assessment is to be believed, around one fifth of the population is extremely concerned about this. This fifth uses the highest rating of “very strong”. At least a third follow him just one step lower. The remaining 50 percent or so see themselves more on the negative side, i.e. in the bottom three classifications.

This is a relevant result. To put it bluntly, every second person stated that they had hardly or not at all dealt with this issue. And here, too, the observation already made applies: there are hardly any differences along the classic distinguishing features in terms of education or aspects of the structural living situation. However, economic characteristics are somewhat more explanatory than environmental awareness in this context. The better the respondent’s situation in this regard, the more cautious the answer. The distinction by age group or cohort is again the most differentiating. The older you get, the more concerned you are about your own environmentally friendly behavior.

These two possibly opposing bivariate correlations – as a rule, age correlates in the same direction with the economic situation – call for multivariate validation. We have conducted such an experiment here, as we did in the 2020 Environmental Awareness Study. There is not enough space here for a detailed presentation of the results. However, those familiar with statistics will find it helpful to know that the explanatory factor r2 for the classic bundle of education, social and economic status including age and gender is only in the range of 0.2 to slightly below 0.3 for various models. Put simply, this means that there are weak to medium correlations, which are often not linear, but other factors may have more explanatory power. According to our theory, personality traits, personal involvement and experience come into play here again. In the 2020 Environmental Awareness Study, for example, we were able to show that knowledge and awareness of the situation in one’s own immediate living environment certainly have an explanatory power. Of course, the causality of this correlation can exist in both directions. Nevertheless, there is an indication of further explanations that should be investigated.

Environmental awareness and examination of one's own practice

Self-assessment and confrontation combined: Still a long way to transformation?

But back to the two initial questions, as they provide further insights. If the answers to both questions – on self-assessment and the extent of the conflict – are combined, the result is a four-field table. It shows how many respondents rate themselves high or low in both or only one of the dimensions. Both their own environmental awareness and their own active engagement with this topic are seen as a given by 46 percent of those surveyed. They each rate themselves highly. This contrasts with 20 percent who are doubly cautious. In both cases, they admit that they do not practice this. Only the proportion of almost exactly one third of respondents from the remaining groups lies in between.

If this distribution is interpreted as a very simple transformation indicator, the figures show that a fifth of the population has not yet arrived in the transformation world and a third has only partially arrived. For around half of them, on the other hand, it looks more coherent. If it is assumed that not everything is “green” in action even in this half and that, in addition, cutbacks must be made due to high social desirability, much remains to be done. More than every second person surveyed lacks awareness or willingness. There are no noticeable differences in gender or any other characteristics apart from age. Even in the face of increasingly noticeable environmental changes, the transformation is a major hurdle for many.

What is the situation in specific fields of action?

The results presented so far take a bird’s eye view of the big picture. For a closer look, however, it is essential to differentiate between various fields of activity. A four-stage survey was conducted for five central fields. As an example, we wanted to know for each field of action,

  • how important an aspect is for the interviewee in their practice,
  • how important this aspect should be for society as a whole in the future,
  • what importance it may actually achieve
  • and finally, what actual opportunities for individual action are already seen today.

The following figure shows the so-called TopBox shares – the two highest approval levels of a 5-point scale – and compares them for all four dimensions and five fields of action. At 68 percent, the intention to reduce one’s own energy consumption is the most important personal priority, followed by the intention to buy more environmentally friendly products (61 percent). The other areas are below the 50 percent mark in this importance ranking. 48 percent are in favor of fewer car journeys as well as the ambitious plan to limit personal consumption in general. In last place is the renunciation of travel and mobility, for which only 41 percent are achieved in the TopBox.

In short, it is not surprising that real restrictions in everyday life are less popular. In these aspects, there are larger gaps or gaps to the “target”, i.e. the question of how important this should be for everyone in the future. In the relatively unpopular area of travel restriction, this is 13 percentage points, and in general consumption restriction it is 9 percentage points. In the other rather unspecific areas, on the other hand, personal importance and target already go hand in hand, at least on average across all respondents.

Comparison of practice, importance and options for action

This changes significantly when the focus is directed towards a realistic assessment of an actual development or one’s own possibilities for action. The actual expectations are consistently below the actual or target values. The picture is more differentiated for the individual options currently recognized: Reducing energy consumption and giving up cars are difficult. In some cases, existing opportunities are not utilized. According to its own indirect statements, this applies to travel and consumption restrictions. The respondents see more opportunities for change there than is reflected in the current individual action agenda. Where their own standard of living could suffer, many respondents fall short of the opportunities they admit to. And again, even with a more precise multivariate analysis, these patterns are more individual and less structural, despite some differences in detail. One exception in terms of renunciation is the differentiation according to economic household status.

From this perspective, it can be seen that reduction options are less realistic among poorly situated respondents – understandable given the comparatively lower actual consumption in this group. This makes it all the more crucial in future to exploit the scope in the better-off segments. At least some of the strategies required for this still need to be developed – and their impact measured empirically in a variety of ways. More precise empirical observation would be advisable at this point. The self-disclosures presented can only be an approximation. They need to be differentiated and supplemented by systematic observations. Diaries and passive measurements over a longer period of time – for example on consumption or mobility habits as well as fundamental investment decisions in a framework of action characterized by “transformation uncertainty” – which are linked to attitude surveys, are suitable for this purpose.

Individual or by state guardrail – which responsibility is seen?

Particularly in view of the scope for action and strategies, we wanted to find out whether, from the citizens’ point of view, individual action is important or whether government or economic decisions are seen as more promising. The result is clearly ambiguous. A good four out of ten respondents chose one of the options. Respondents in the “lower” socio-economic half tend to favor the individual side and those in the “upper” half tend to favor the “state” side of the measures. It is noticeable that the better the individual’s living situation, the more skepticism or the greater the willingness to take a step back in terms of consumption, if at the same time the alternative of regulatory guard rails is put forward.

What helps – how are selected concrete starting points evaluated?

The success or failure of both interventions can be linked to certain conditions. For this reason, we have also specified four requirements or conditions for evaluation that facilitate transformation. The respondents were asked about their importance. 72 percent of respondents consider it (very) important to have more information on environmental impact. This is followed in second place by more cost-effective, environmentally friendly products or offers. They achieve an importance score of 70 percent. At 57 percent, a higher personal income is seen as slightly less of an incentive for individuals to be more environmentally aware. Comparatively “only” 50 percent see more legal regulations and bans on certain products as a prerequisite. Across all groups, the population is united in calling for more information and labeling in relation to harmful products. Younger people and people from less affluent segments more often see a higher income as a prerequisite than their counterparts at the other end of the wealth scale. Extended statutory regulations are assessed differently in all groups, so that supporters and opponents of such interventions are roughly equally divided.

Individual action or government guidelines and guard rails?

What remains – in terms of method and content?

The experiment described above proves that a plus in environmental orientation and the willingness to put established routines in various areas of life to the individual or collective test are still not capable of winning a majority – despite a self-attested high level of environmental awareness. Warehouses and standbys are often divided along the 50 percent line. Although the pendulum is swinging in the direction of a growing environmentally oriented practice, especially among younger people, a certain polarization of relatively large camps can be seen. There is a need for investment in communication, knowledge, individual action and also regulation and its empirical monitoring as an element of success control and a source of ideas.

A narrative of renunciation encounters more obstacles than positive incentives. Economic fears are also becoming apparent. They can be interpreted as part of a possible excessive demand. This is also demonstrated by the pronounced demands for better conditions and assistance. Methodologically, the thematic multi-layered operationalization is promising. It can be taken forward in future surveys.

More concrete, long-term behavioral observations and objective measurements also belong in this series. Our impression is that the statements and assessments selected as examples, which are quite robust, non-ideologized and not multidimensional, are highly recommended as a starting point in this or a further developed form.

Attention should also be paid to the sample. We have chosen the dual-frame sampling method and thus a real random selection. Often underestimated are social desirability effects, which make every survey more susceptible to topic-related selectivity. If this fact is ignored and not taken into account methodically, unreliable results are the consequence.

It becomes fateful when wrong conclusions are drawn on the basis of insufficient samples or non-optimal operationalizations, even if these may be plausible or correspond to one’s own hopes. In the transformation process, this manifests itself in too much false recklessness. In the face of foreseeable impositions, social science transformation research that is robust in terms of content and methodology is more necessary than ever.

Tables for the article

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Belz, J., Follmer, R., Hölscher, J., Stieß, I., Sunderer, G., Birzle-Harder, B. (2022): Umweltbewusstsein in Deutschland 2020. Ergebnisse einer repräsentativen Bevölkerungsumfrage. Hrsg.: Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz, nukleare Sicherheit und Verbraucherschutz (BMUV) und Umweltbundesamt (UBA). Berlin, Dessau-Roßlau
Wolf, I. u. a. (2023): Soziales Nachhaltigkeitsbarometer.