Majority of Britons Have Adopted Behaviours to Help the Environment but Find it Hard to Know Whether They Make a Real Difference

May 25, 2021
R&WS Research Team
Environment
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In recent years, the UK Government has increasingly focused on environmental issues, from the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ to hosting the COP26 climate conference. Research conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies has found that, beyond Government-led approaches aimed at tackling climate change, most individual Britons say they are also adopting behaviours to protect the environment in their daily lives

Three quarters (75%) of British adults claim they have actively adopted behaviours to protect the environment and combat climate change.

While younger people may be more likely to say they care about the environment and to say they consider themselves to be environmental activists, older people are slightly more likely to say they actively adopt behaviours to protect the environment and combat climate change. For example, almost a third (31%) of 18-to-24-year-olds say they do not actively adopt behaviours to protect the environment and combat climate change, compared to 22% of those aged 65 and over. 

This slight difference between age groups, however, might be a matter of their interpretation of their own actions instead of an actual difference in their actions. For younger respondents, what counts as behaviours to adopt to protect the environment might be more limited. 

When asked about how easy or difficult they find it to know what behaviours to adopt, half (50%) of respondents agree that they find it easy to know what practices to adopt to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, while just 15% disagree. Meanwhile, 30% neither agree nor disagree, and 5% say they don’t know. In contrast to the previous question cited, agreement with this statement decreases with age, with 21% of 55-to-64-year olds, and 18% of those above 65 disagreeing, compared 10-11% of 18-to-34-year-olds.

Among those who say they have adopted certain behaviours to combat climate change, the most popular behaviours include recycling (86%), reusing bags when shopping (84%), and favouring biking or walking over trains, buses, and cars when traveling locally, where possible (60%). Indeed, research conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies in the West Midlands and London found that the majority of people do not use their own car to undertake most daily tasks like food shopping, going to work, or going to the pub, but are more likely to use their car when travelling out of the area.

Most of these actions are similarly adopted across all age groups, though there are some notable differences. Younger people are less likely to say they re-use bags when shopping, with 69% of 18-to-24-year-olds saying they do, compared to 91% of those 65 and over. Conversely, younger respondents are more likely to say they have attended a public protest seeking to address climate change than older respondents—11% of 18-to-24-year-olds say they have attended one, compared to just 4% of overall respondents who say they have adopted behaviours to combat climate change. Younger people were also more likely to say they have donated to organisations that combat climate change (27% of 18-to-24-year-olds, compared to 13% overall) and bought carbon offsets (16% of 18-to-24-year-olds compared to 7% overall). 

Moreover, a quarter (24%) of Britons say they have participated in a boycott of a company or product because of environmental concerns.

Again, we find that younger people are more likely to say they have participated in a boycott of a company or product because of environmental concerns: 41% of 18-to-24-year-olds and a third (32%) of 25-to-34-year-olds say they have done so, compared to just 16% of 55-to-64-year-olds and 18% of those 65 and over.

Among those who say they have participated in a boycott because of environmental concerns, the majority (55%) say they boycotted a food and drink company or product, 41% say they boycotted a clothing and footwear company or product, and 30% say they boycotted fuels and mining goods.

Among all personal actions covered by our poll, recycling is the most popular behaviour individuals say they are adopting in order to protect the environment and tackle climate change. Overall, 71% of respondents agree that they have a good understanding of how recycling works in their local area, while just 8% say they do not. 

When asked about what they think happens to the rubbish they put into recycling bins and bags, a majority (57%) of respondents say they think that all or most of the trash they put in recycling bins and bags gets recycled. Meanwhile, a further 28% think some of it gets recycled, and 9% think little or almost none of it gets recycled.

The European Union set a target to recycle 50% of waste from households by 2020, yet, in 2017, Wales was the only UK nation that met the target with a recycling rate of 57.6%. While recycling rates do vary significantly by material, our research suggest that the British public generally think the recycling rate is higher than it actually is. While many Britons claim they have an understanding of how recycling works, this knowledge may be limited to their role in the recycling process. That is, they may understand they that need to put recycling into certain bins, check what can be recycled, separate recycling appropriately, and ensure it is collected by their local council, but many could have a very limited understanding of what happens once their recycling is collected. 

Indeed, despite so many Britons saying they are adopting behaviours to protect the environment, a majority (51%) agree with a statement suggesting that they find it hard to tell whether the practices they adopt to live a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle make any real difference, with only 16% thinking that they are certain these practices make a difference. 

This final result suggests that most of the British public is willing to adopt behaviours in a bid to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle regardless of whether they know such actions make any real difference, perhaps in the hope that they will make some difference. In fact, 54% of those who say they have adopted behaviours to protect the environment and combat change also agree that they find it hard to tell whether the practices they adopt make any real difference, while 18% disagree. 

This result could reflect the increased social pressure to live a more environmentally conscious life, or it could reflect a real and growing concern for the environment among the British public. For those that have already adopted environmentally friendly behaviours, more could potentially be done to communicate the benefits of their actions, which could encourage them to continue or amplify them. After all, the ways in which individuals can help protect the environment is not an exhaustive list.

11% of those who say they do not currently adopt behaviours to live a more environmentally friendly disagree with a statement suggesting they find it hard to tell whether such practices make any real difference, while 43% agree. This result suggests that those Britons who do not actively adopt environmentally friendly behaviours may do so because it is not clear to them whether they are beneficial and make a real impact, rather than because they do not care about the environment or climate change. Perhaps in the quest for national and global large-scale environmental change, the Government and climate activists have neglected communicating the benefits of adopting environmentally friendly behaviours on an individual level.

Overall, most Britons say they are adopting behaviours individually to protect the environment and tackle climate change, including recycling, reusing shopping bags, and taking public transport. In addition to such practical steps, we find that younger people are more likely to also have adopted more political methods to tackle climate change, such as donating to climate change organisations, buying carbon offsets, boycotting companies or products, and attending protests. Overall, the majority of Britons agree that they find it easy to know what practices to adopt to protect the environment and combat climate change. At the same time, however, a majority of respondents also say they find it hard to know whether the practices they adopt are making any real difference.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

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