Survey: COVID-19’s impact on Americans’ sustainability habits

Key takeaways

  • 38.5% of people said following sustainability habits is more important since the onset of COVID-19.
  • 53.5% of people said they’re likely to think less of someone who doesn’t practice sustainable living.
  • 1 in 5 people said the pandemic has made it more difficult to live sustainably.
  • Buying products locally was the top sustainable practice people said they want to implement in 2021.
Surveys

The current climate crisis has been making headlines this year along with the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. presidential election. Solving the climate crisis will be a focus for the Biden administration, according to the top economic White House adviser, a follow-through to his campaign promise of aiming to remove carbon pollution from the power sector by 2025. The question is not whether we as humans need to change, but rather how?

The good news is that the race against climate change is one we can win, and it's one every individual can play a part in. To learn more about the steps Americans are taking in slowing climate change, we asked over 1,000 adults about their sustainability practices and how the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped their efforts. The results may surprise you. Read on to see what we discovered.

Who's afraid of climate change?

Climate concerns

Given that climate change is having observable effects on the environment, from melting glaciers and rising sea levels to more extreme heat waves, we wanted to assess how Americans feel about these impacts. Are they extremely concerned or hardly bothered? How big of a factor does concern over climate change play in the need to develop sustainable living habits?

Based on our survey, people are more concerned about the impact climate change will have on society overall as opposed to their personal life. Over 36% of respondents said they were extremely concerned about the impact of climate change on society overall, compared to just over 25% who expressed extreme concern over the personal impacts of climate change. This isn't too surprising, given the impacts of climate change on individuals are expected to impact future generations the most.

Despite the fact that the greatest threats of climate change will be realized by younger generations, baby boomers were the most likely to say it's extremely important to develop sustainable habits today. Over 44% of baby boomers gave developing sustainable habits an extreme importance rating, compared to 36.3% of respondents overall. Most people cited developing sustainable living habits as very important rather than extremely important.

Where does climate change responsibility lie?

Responsibility for sustainable living

Experts from the United Nations have stressed the need to take action today to combat climate change. However, the question remains: Who bears the most responsibility for addressing it? According to our study, the majority of Americans believed everyone bears equal responsibility.

Over one-fifth of Americans – millennials most of all – believed corporations hold the most responsibility for addressing climate change and for good reason: Reports have found that 100 energy companies are responsible for over 70% of all industrial emissions since climate change was recognized. So, while we can all help mitigate the causes of climate change through more sustainable practices, corporations are perhaps the most to blame and hold the most power to enact change.

Almost an equal number of respondents who called out corporations believed governments hold the most responsibility for addressing climate change. Meanwhile, just over 1 in 10 Americans felt it's up to individual consumers most of all. In many ways, consumers are the most to blame for climate change due to companies producing greenhouse gases to meet consumer demand for their products. In which case, the answer to combating climate change may be in altering consumer culture and voting with our dollars.

A minority of Americans believed no one bears responsibility for climate change. Baby boomers were the most likely to hold this view, but they are largely drowned out by the majority who held themselves to a high standard for living sustainably. Over three-quarters of Americans upheld sustainable living practices, and over 53% would go so far as to say they look down on others who don't do the same.

How are Americans helping slow climate change?

Sustainability in the homeThere are many ways to practice sustainable living, from reducing consumption to using more sustainable devices. Fossil fuels are a known culprit of climate change. An easy way for individuals to reduce their impact on climate change is by using renewable energy in their home. Using energy-efficient appliances can help both you and the environment by reducing your electricity bill and greenhouse emissions.

The most popular sustainable device people employed in their homes today were energy-efficient lightbulbs. Energy-efficient appliances, such as washing machines and refrigerators, were also popular choices for over 55% of respondents. The lockdowns and social distancing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the purchase and use of home appliances. The International Energy Agency believes the increased purchase and replacement of appliances will reduce the overall energy intensity of the appliance market.

Many Americans were also using energy-efficient heaters and/or air conditioners. Some noted the use of programmable or intelligent thermostats. These allow you to adjust the times when your heating or air conditioning is in use. Setting your thermostat to a more ambient temperature when you're out of the house or asleep is an easy way to reduce your electricity usage.

Solar panels are also on the rise in America. Almost 20% of respondents said they use home solar panels, with millennials being the most likely to report having them. Millennials were also the most likely to say they use an electric or hybrid vehicle. Only about 7% of respondents said they aren't using any sustainable devices in their homes.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to sustainable products is the cost factor. "Green" products tend to be too expensive for the average consumer. Around 11% of consumers said they would be unlikely to buy sustainable products if there was a less expensive nonsustainable option. Only about 8% said they would be extremely likely to buy a more expensive sustainable product. The majority of respondents reported being somewhat likely to consider more expensive, sustainable products, but Gen Xers were the most likely to say they wouldn't opt for these costlier alternatives.

How COVID-19 has impacted Americans' sustainability efforts

The pandemic's impact on sustainable habitsThe COVID-19 pandemic has had a direct impact on the environment. Mobility restrictions have led to improved air quality by reducing fossil fuel consumption, and less travel has lightened the pollution and ecological strain on tourist destinations. At the same time, increased medical waste and lessened recycling have had harmful effects on the environment. About 1 in 5 respondents said they've found it harder to practice sustainable living during the pandemic.

Nevertheless, many have started new sustainable living habits since the pandemic began. Chief among these is less consumerism: Almost 20% of respondents said they have been buying fewer products since the pandemic began. This is encouraging given that recent studies have found buying less is even better for the environment than buying green.

Over 18% of people said they reduced their use of single-use plastics and started using reusable alternatives instead. While reducing plastic waste is beneficial, research actually shows that the effectiveness of "zero waste" efforts on sustainability is far less than that of reducing meat consumption. So, it's good news that 16% of respondents said they've started reducing their meat and animal product consumption since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 12% have gone so far as to implement a plant-based diet amid the pandemic.

Other common new practices included shopping locally and buying primarily from sustainable brands while boycotting businesses with unsustainable practices. People are also increasingly limiting their energy and water consumption and avoiding driving in favor of alternative forms of transportation – luckily mass transit poses little risk of coronavirus outbreaks.

Ringing in a more sustainable New Year

Looking to the future

With a new year often comes new habits. While exercising more and eating healthier continue to top the New Year's resolutions lists for 2021, people are also adopting more sustainable habits in the new year. Over 31% of respondents said they're planning to buy more products locally in 2021. While this is beneficial, the reality is that eating local would have a minimal impact on the greenhouse emissions caused by food production. To have a bigger impact, you'd need to change what you eat, not just where it's sourced. And over 50% of respondents said they'll be doing just that in 2021.

One in 5 respondents said they're going to reduce their intake of meat and/or animal products in 2021, and nearly the same number said they'll begin growing their own food. Over 14% claimed they'll be adopting a plant-based diet, which has been shown to be good for you and the Earth. Millennials were the most likely to say they'll be going plant-based in 2021, with nearly twice as many millennials making this resolution as baby boomers.

Many Americans reported that they will be looking for reusable alternatives to single-use items – perhaps starting with single-use masks, which have begun polluting our waters and filling landfills. And, over 1 in 4 people reported wanting to start or improve their recycling habits, drive less, and avoid buying items packaged in plastic in 2021. Given both the production and disposal of plastics contributes to many environmental problems, avoiding them altogether can be a good step toward sustainable living.

Protecting the environment and your home

The United Nations has called climate change "the defining issue of our time," and its impacts are already affecting our planet. While the worst effects may be yet to come, it's up to us to start slowing climate change's destructive pace.

Burning fossil fuels for heat, electricity and transportation are the largest sources of greenhouse gas from human activities in the U.S. Switching to energy-efficient appliances can be a smart way to help slow climate change. At Cinch Home Services, we want to help protect those energy-efficient appliances so that you can keep using them day in and day out. Our Complete Home Plan will cover everything from your built-in heating and air conditioning unit to your eco-friendly washer and dryer. Visit cinchhomeservices.com to learn more.

Methodology

We surveyed 1,021 people about their sustainable habits and opinions about sustainable living generally. Respondents were 52% men and 47.3% women. Six respondents were nonbinary. The average age of respondents was 39.6 with a standard deviation of 12.8 years.

Limitations

The data we are presenting rely on self-report. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include, but are not limited to the following: selective memory, telescoping, attribution and exaggeration.

Fair use statement

We'd love for you to share the findings of our report regarding sustainability with anyone who might be interested. We ask only that you share for noncommercial purposes and include a link back to this page so that our designers receive credit for their hard work. Thank you.

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