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Is the environment still on the agenda, and if so, who really cares?

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Research & Consulting Team Savanta 05/06/2020

While coronavirus is dominating the news headlines, climate change and environmental issues still loom in the background. But with so much else to worry about, who really cares about the environment?

The state of the environment and our role in protecting it has risen up the news agenda over the past few years. It has grown from a niche issue to an important and urgent topic that is now being taken seriously, by most, across the board.

Brands who adapt their offering and encourage consumers to also change their habits to more environmentally friendly ones, may prosper as a result.

Before the world became engulfed in the all-consuming coronavirus crisis, concern for the environment played a part in every facet of our lives. What we eat, where we shop, how we travel and, ultimately, whether we’re prepared to pay more to offset the environmental impact of the decisions we make as consumers.

The public’s attitudes can provide food for thought for brands wanting to do their part for the planet. Competitive pricing is always high on the agenda for many retail brands trying to attract and retain customers, but perhaps there are other ways to engage shoppers to think sustainably.

Brands who adapt their offering and encourage consumers to also change their habits to more environmentally friendly ones, may prosper as a result.

For now, the world has been focussing on and prioritising recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, but environmental issues will undoubtedly rise to the forefront once again.

Brands will need to consider the impact of coronavirus in a wider context, especially in terms of the environment, and futureproof so that they are prepared for future generations’ attitudes.

Could this be the catalyst that changed the future of our planet’s health?

This long read article explores several facets of our attitudes and behaviours towards the environment as a nation, and by generation. Generational groups have been identified as those born before 1945, between 1944-1964 (Baby Boomers), 1965-1979 (Gen X), 1980-1994 (Millennials) and 1995-2015 (Gen Y)

It’s designed to be read in one sitting or can be broken into snapshots to be read at your leisure. Just click on the links below to explore the section(s) you’re interested in.

Who is environmentally friendly?

Environmental issues play on some minds more than others. When it comes to their own environmental footprint, it’s the younger generations who are the most likely to say that they feel guilty. Also among the most likely to feel guilty (at least occasionally) are females (83%) and those with children under 18 years of age living at home (86%).

The highest earners (those earning over £70,000) are the most likely to say that they are concerned about environmental issues in general.

Different generations have different ways of contributing. Millennials are the most likely to be willing to spend more on average to be environmentally friendly, but when it comes to everyday actions like recycling, those born before 1945 are the most likely to want to recycle what they purchase (77%).

Age, class and the environment: how demographics affect how much you care

Younger generations are more likely to feel guilty about the state of the environment, however in most cases they are sadly powerless to help.

Just a handful of world leaders are millennials (including Finland’s Sanna Marin born in 1985) or even Gen X, meaning major decisions on climate change are not being made by those who will feel the effects far into the future.

Though it’s harder for the younger generation to directly influence change in a political sense, when it comes to actually spending more money to be environmentally friendly, Millennials and Generation Z outscore all other age groups.

For example, when it comes to clothes, the younger generations are significantly more likely to say that if being environmentally friendly came at a direct financial cost, they would be willing to spend much more money than they currently do (16% for Gen Z and 11% for Millennials, vs 6% for Gen X and 3% for both Baby Boomers and those born before 1945).

The same goes for food and groceries, eating out, buying furniture and choice of car.

In terms of easily accessible sustainability, the younger generations believe the most realistic way to help make a change is through shopping for food and groceries. Gen X and Millennials are the most likely (38% and 37% respectively) to say that when it comes to food, their purchasing decisions are always influenced by sustainability. They could even be strongly encouraged to be more environmentally friendly with better pricing options (21% of Gen X and 18% of Millennials).

What impacts people’s desire to be more environmentally friendly?

The drive to become more environmentally friendly ultimately lies with individuals themselves, with half (50%) saying they are their own biggest motivation for acting sustainably. Alongside that, some of the key influencers that encourage people to take action are their friends (32%), and news articles that they read online or in print (28%).

The health of future generations also plays a big part, with three in ten (30%) parents saying that their kids have the biggest impact when it comes to inspiring them to be environmentally friendly.

Politicians, celebrities and members of The Royal Family are less likely to have an effect. There have been several instances where influential people within the media (such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle) have spoken out about environmental issues such as climate change, and have then been perceived to behave in a way that undermines and contradicts what they have previously said. This doesn’t bode well with the public, who view them as hypocritical and promoting double standards (28%).

What actions are the different generations taking?

Does class and income have an impact?

While environmental campaigners such as Extinction Rebellion have definitely played their part in raising awareness of the imminent threat to the planet in terms of climate change, the group itself acknowledges that it has a difficult time getting its message across to certain audiences – namely those outside its core middle class demographic.

Whether that hinders them or not is another question.

The data shows that higher earners (£70,000+) tend to say they are more concerned about the environment (77%), compared to those earning less than £20,000 (64%). Those who earn £70,000+ are the most interested in learning more about the environment (78%) compared to 60% of those earning under £20,000.

As environmental science commentators have noted, people who are struggling to pay rent and feed their children have a far more immediate ‘emergency’ on their hands.

For those less well-off individuals, activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion’s methods may come across as creating more harm than good – for example, the unauthorised environmental protests in working class London district, Canning Town, disrupted many from getting to work to provide for their families, accessing childcare and so forth.

So, worrying about the environment could be perceived by some as somewhat of a luxury – despite the fact that environmental issues affect us all in the same way. We all share the same planet, and the repercussions of environmental issues don’t discriminate – but personal priorities and circumstances do prevail.

The coronavirus pandemic has illustrated a similar theme. While on the surface, the issue affects each and every one of us, in reality there are socioeconomic factors that see some people more at risk than others. Fundamentally, things such as class, culture and financial income do play a big part in how we are affected by crises and, ultimately, how we respond when it strikes.

So, who doesn’t care?

Perhaps for reasons discussed above, when looking in to the profile of a person who is less environmentally friendly, the data shows that those earning under £20,000 are the least likely to feel concerned about environmental issues (64%).

Personal finance aside, it’s the older generations who are the least likely to feel guilty about their own impact on the environment with 35% of Baby Boomers and 31% of those born before 1945 saying that they never feel guilt.

Of all generations, Baby Boomers are the least likely to say that they would be willing to spend more on average in order to be more environmentally friendly (40%), and the two older generations – those born before 1945 and Baby Boomers – are least likely to compromise on their choice to help the environment (65% and 69% respectively).

That said, when it comes to recycling, older generations tend to care more than younger ones. Gen Z and Millennials are least likely to consider recyclability when they purchase something for their home (66% and 68% respectively) compared to 77% of those born before 1945.

How is the environment factored in to purchasing decisions?

We looked at certain areas which are targeted as areas of potential change by climate activists and are most prominent in the news, including travel, food and drink, household energy, and finance, to see how people feel about changing their behaviours. We also delve in to the most effective ways of persuading consumers to consider their environmental footprint.

Although the world has been turned on its head, this information will be invaluable for brands as we head into a new normal. We’ve learnt so much about ourselves as a nation over the past few months, and while the situation is not ideal, the pandemic has shown that there are many consumer areas where change can happen.

Where once we relied upon flying – it turns out we can go without. As supermarket shelves were swiped empty, we learnt new tips and tricks for the kitchen. With less offices to power up and more people working from home, will we begin to demand more, for less, from our energy providers?

Could our new habits be the turning point towards a greener outlook?

A snapshot:

Perhaps due to its general affordability compared with other, more expensive areas such as travel, food is the most likely to be influenced by the desire to be environmentally friendly.

When shopping for products and services, there are several factors that impact the decisions people make in terms of what to purchase. Interestingly, the top factors remain the same across all generations – cost (89%) and durability (82%) come first and second respectively for everyone. Being able to recycle (71%), takes the third spot across all groups.

When it comes to things people don’t care as much about, brand name (37%) and locally made produce (47%) are the least impactful factors on purchase decisions among all generations.

Having ‘sustainability credentials’ also ranks low in the list of importance (60%). Even among those that claim to be ‘very environmentally friendly’, it is not ranked within the top three considerations. Those that are ‘very environmentally friendly’ (along with vegans) rank durability over cost, and consider being able to recycle the most influential factors.

And which areas are being impacted by desire to be environmentally friendly?

On the whole, despite consideration for the environment growing, the majority claim that purchase decisions are not impacted by the desire to be environmentally friendly.

For every area we looked at, there are more people who say their purchases are never impacted than always impacted. Products and services that are most likely to be always impacted by the desire to be environmentally friendly are food and groceries (31%), car choice (26%), buying clothes (22%), furniture (18%) and eating out (17%).

Let’s take a deeper dive into some of our main areas.


Air travel has always been a main target for activists – the extreme and highly publicised levels of carbon emissions generated by flying are easy to argue.

But flying seems to be something that many Brits have turned a blind eye to in the past. In fact, research from the Association of British Travel Agents found that almost nine in ten (88%) of UK travellers went on holiday from August 2018 to July 2019, with overseas holidays at its highest level for years.

With the coronavirus pandemic having halted most unessential domestic and international travel at this moment in time, several issues have been thrown up that could potentially pose a drastic change to the air travel industry.

Airlines are massively struggling and reducing their destination offering to compensate for their own losses, reducing the number of places available to travel to.

Government bailouts and mass redundancies will also have a financial impact on the industry that could, in turn, bring up the cost of flying, making it less accessible and therefore a ‘back up’ option.

So, if there are less available destinations and higher pricing – could this signal the end of the easyJet generation?

Add this to the rise of campaigns such as the Swedish originated ‘flight shame’ movement, and we may be looking ahead to a future where flying multiple times a year is not the norm.

Interestingly, pre-coronavirus data already shows that attitudes to international travel are affected by a desire to be more environmentally friendly, with a third (35%) of the population saying they either already were or plan on only taking holidays in the UK in the future.

A quarter (25%) also say that they either already have or are planning to reduce the number of international flights taken in their personal life, with the same (26%) reducing the number of domestic flights taken, in order to do their bit for the environment.

Changing one’s travel behaviour due to a desire to be more environmentally friendly varies by location.

Those in London are most likely to say purchase decisions are always impacted by the environment (34%) whilst those in villages are the most likely (39%) to say that purchase decisions are never impacted by it.

When it comes to electric vehicles…

In 2018, the government, released its Road to Zero strategy, an ambition to see at least half of new cars made be ultra-low emission by 2030. The plans are part of a mission to make the UK the “best place in the world to build and own an electric vehicle”.

Part of the plan involves a significant expansion of green infrastructure across the UK, efforts to reduce emissions from vehicles already on road, and increase the uptake of zero emission vehicles.

Getting the public on board with electric vehicles isn’t a challenge. Almost two thirds (65%) of the UK public say their choice of which car to drive is affected by the environment. This figure rises to three quarters (74%) among millennials.

But we’re in tricky times when it comes to driving. The coronavirus has rendered a lot of public transport unusable, and people have been urged to drive to work if they have no other choice. This isn’t a good time for many to be investing in brand new electric cars, so will the environment have to take a backseat for the foreseeable future?

Hopefully not, as the government are also encouraging people to cycle and walk to work where possible. Perhaps the £2bn investment into new cycling and walking infrastructure will help to limit the rise of petrol/diesel car use, until a new normal is established.

Food and groceries

As we’ve discovered, food and groceries are the areas where people will spend more in order to buy environmentally friendly products– likely due to their relative cheapness overall. For someone earning a fair salary the odd pound here and there won’t make too much of a difference, with 55% willing to pay extra.

Food and groceries are one of the easiest areas for brands to show off their environmental credentials. Simple actions such as actively reducing plastic and moving to more paper and cardboard packaging, along with using ingredients sourced sustainably, could be the difference between a consumer picking up a product or walking past it.

If a brand or provider offered proof of their environmentally friendly credentials, food is the area in which consumers would most likely let this affect their purchasing decisions (compared to home appliances, travel, car choice etc.)

The younger generations are significantly more likely to say that if being environmentally friendly came at a direct financial cost to themselves, they would be willing to spend much more money than they currently do. Gen X and Baby Boomers are least willing to spend more if the cost impacted them personally.

Gen Z want to be the greenest food shoppers of all and are much more likely to say that they are always considering the environment when shopping for food and groceries.

Utilities and energy

When it comes to utilities and energy supplies, companies have some way to go to showcase their green credentials and encourage people to switch.

Reducing the cost of energy is more important to consumers than actually reducing the impact on the environment.

The older generation are the most likely of all to actively put the environment before cost and say that reducing the impact on the planet is a priority.

Countries such as Germany and Spain have led the charge within Europe when it comes to producing solar energy, while the UK has always lagged behind. That’s not to say that it’s unpopular – a significant eight in ten (77%) Brits think that the UK should be increasing its use of solar energy going forward.

There are obvious barriers to success in the UK, and some (22%) even say wind farms and solar are inefficient. An explanation for the lack of uptake could be anything from the unreliable weather to our less expansive open space.

In contrast to the high levels of people supporting solar energy, just 9% think the UK should increase its use of coal as an energy source. Fossil fuels are linked to a high level of carbon dioxide and contribute more to climate change than several other energy sources – which could explain the lack of widespread support.

One in five (21%) think that the UK should increase its use of nuclear energy. Interestingly, nuclear power is more favourable to older people than any other age group. –

As National Geographic state: ‘nuclear power isn’t considered renewable energy, given its dependence on a mined, finite resource, but because operating reactors do not emit any of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, proponents say it should be considered a climate change solution’.

Naturally, accidents such as Fukushima in 2011 tarnish its name, and with countries like Germany set to close all of its nuclear powerplants by 2022, will the UK follow suit?

Younger generations growing up with renewable solutions available to them may not consider it a viable option to continue towards a greener future.

When it comes to how this energy is used within the household, British Gas lead the way as a supplier of the nation. Cost outranks any other reason as rationale for choosing a provider, but brand name and sustainability credentials play a significant part too.

While people strongly support and oppose energy sources on a large scale, when it comes to bringing energy into the home for personal use, environmental and ethical credentials fall to the bottom of the list.

That doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. If anything, desire for low cost energy will only increase over the coming months to compensate for the time we are all spending in our homes. Most of us are used to just consuming energy in the early mornings and late evenings, but we are now using things like internet, water, heating and television 24/7.


The topic of sustainable finance, while not widely discussed on a day to day level, has grown in importance over the past few years.

In December 2019, before the UK left the EU, the European Commission unveiled a new strategy called the European Green Deal, with the intention of making Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050.

As part of this, there will be a ‘European Green Deal Investment Plan’ which will activate at least €1 trillion of sustainable investments over the next ten years, providing a structure to facilitate the public and private investments needed for a transition to a climate neutral, green economy.

While these plans may not affect the UK going forward, it’s interesting to look at how people feel about finance in relation to the environment on a more granular, personal level.

Of all categories tracked, finance (specifically banking and financial investments) is the area where people are least likely to consider the environment when choosing a provider. People don’t want to incur a direct financial cost when it comes to their money management, with a relatively low number willing to spend more than they currently do for a more positive environmental impact.

That said, four in ten (39%) say that having environmental credentials would make them more likely to choose a specific provider, and 55% say they would consider moving to an ethical bank. Though compared with other areas (such as food and groceries, where 57% believe environmental credentials would make them more likely to purchase), finance comes last.

This isn’t to say that people wont compromise though.

Despite coming low on the list of areas in which consumers may compromise on their choice to be greener, the figure for banking and financial investment is still relatively high, at 65% and 63% respectively.

Around the home

Reduce, reuse, recycle. We hear it constantly, but does it really cause people to take action?

The benefits of recycling are relatively straightforward: conserving natural resources, protecting ecosystems and wildlife, reducing landfill waste and even creating jobs. The good news is that the data shows Brits are, for the most part, on board.

Four in five (80%) people say that they are currently recycling, and three in four use recyclable bags and give unwanted items to charity.

Older people are far more likely to give old clothes, furniture or other household items to charity, rather than throw them away. Additionally, the vast majority of Gen X, Baby Boomers and those born before 1945 say they already do recycle plastic, glass, paper and food, compared to 57% of Gen Z and 68% of Millennials.

Though it’s not all doom and gloom for the younger generations. In fact, many of them would actively participate in initiatives that support sustainability. For example, Millennials (59%) are the most likely age group to say that they would support giving up three hours a week to grow fruit and vegetables in an allotment for their local community.

They are also the most likely to say that they would give up their garden to grow fruit and vegetables if it helped the environment (62%).

And when it comes to clothing…

The sustainable clothing trend is on the rise and now more than ever, frivolous spending on cheap clothing is seen as taboo. Beyond just the environment, it’s hard to ignore the many stories about factory workers being paid miniscule sums of money to mass-produce fast fashion items for western markets, and it’s making people reconsider their impact on the wider world.

And now, with most of us bound to our homes as a result of coronavirus, has the need for brand new clothing subsided? People have nowhere to go and less money to spend as a result of the pandemic, and many are opting for more comfortable home wear as opposed to the latest trends.

The data shows that while food and groceries is the area that they would consider spending more, clothing is the area where people are most willing to compromise on their choice in order to be more environmentally friendly. An example of compromising could simply be buying from a favourite shop less often because it’s not environmentally friendly, even though you love the clothing.

Four in ten (41%) are already buying second hand/from charity shops, and a further 37% say that they would consider doing so. A quarter (26%) are already buying clothes and other items that are ethically sourced, and 58% say they would think about doing it too.

Consideration for buying ethically sourced items, including clothing, is highest for Millennials and Generation X, and lowest for the older generations.

Younger generations are more likely to be aware of fast fashion and some of the consequences it bears, as they have been the most exposed to it – several of the biggest multi-million-pound fast fashion corporations having popped up in the last 10 years or so.

Younger generations are also more likely to hold a penchant for vintage second hand clothing, with retro stores planted in the middle of most university cities – but older generations are more likely to be able to afford new, quality clothes.

Are vegans leading the way?

Veganism has been a source of contention ever since it skyrocketed in popularity a few years ago.

Not that long ago, vegans were mocked and considered niche, but the backing of brands has propelled it into the mainstream. Notoriously meaty high street food chains have even jumped on the bandwagon, with Greggs adapting its infamous sausage roll into a vegan version and KFC and Burger King offering meat alternatives.

Where once they might have laughed in the face of vegans, even the staunchest meat eater might be persuaded to try a Quorn chicken burger nowadays.

Despite many people believing that veganism is having its own negative impact on several longstanding industries, such as meat and dairy, vegans have strong purchasing power and shouldn’t be overlooked.

And it looks like the environment is a top priority in their purchasing decisions.

When it comes to holiday decisions – whether that be domestic/international flying, travel by car etc – vegans are the most likely to say their decisions are impacted by the desire to be environmentally friendly.

They are also more likely to be driven by the desire to be environmentally friendly when it comes to choosing utility providers too (50%), along with choosing what and where to eat out (42%).

One in ten vegans say that they would stop talking to someone if they refused to take steps to be environmentally friendly.

So, what does the future hold for the environment?

Overall, people in the UK are concerned about environmental issues, but perhaps feel that they don’t have the ability to make a significant impact on an individual level. The coronavirus crisis has shown that for ingrained habits and behaviours to change something major needs to occur. Who would have thought at the beginning of 2020 that the skies would be clear, traffic congestion would have all but disappeared from London roads, and goats would be roaming deserted Welsh streets?

However, while many environmental activists would welcome these drastic changes, this state of affairs is unsustainable from an economic viewpoint. Perhaps this crisis rather offers an opportunity for balance.

Corporations and the government have a major part to play when it comes to making long term change as well as educating and making information accessible. Perhaps the coronavirus crisis can serve as an example of the type of government intervention required to steer us towards taking more responsibility, as a nation, to make our country greener.

People have busy lives with a number of more immediate concerns and worries – not least an unprecedented global pandemic.

Before this, we lived in a world where instant gratification was king. But now that much of this has been temporarily taken away – and we can’t do whatever we want whenever we want: take a flight, go to a restaurant or go on a shopping spree – will this affect our long-term attitudes to the environment too?

It can often be hard to bear the bigger picture in mind, but now we’ve seen how quickly things can change, what will we choose to do differently?

As we’ve seen, people do tend to take the easy options when it comes to looking after the environment – recycling is accessible whereas when it comes to researching new financial products or cars people are less likely to put in the extra effort.

Perhaps those who don’t recycle as much are disillusioned by the countless environmentalists’ advice that ‘recycling doesn’t do much anyway’. Changing their habits on a micro-level might not feel like something they need to do as an individual.

Three quarters (74%) think the government should be doing more to encourage greenness. People want the whole world to work together – again, examples can be taken from the coronavirus crisis – not countries outsourcing their problems to each other or corporations making insincere promises.

If brands really want to throw their hat into the environmentally friendly ring, in some cases they simply need to make it cheaper to care or offer clever ways that people can save money.

The data points to other ways brands can get people on board too – perhaps offering products with less packaging, less plastic and less meat.

Being aware of the difference between generations, life stages and other key demographics is crucial when thinking about the environment (for example, across the board those with a young family are the most likely to say that it affects their purchasing decisions).

With coronavirus having its own effect on things that influence the environment, such as emissions and fast fashion, there’s never been a better time for bands to tap in to who really cares and reap the benefits of tailoring their solutions for different audiences.

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading this report. Get in touch to find out more how we can help you gain insights into the audiences you care about.

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