Consumers Don’t Buy Corporate Blame Shifting on Climate

3 minute read

One of the most pervasive misunderstandings I hear in some corporate circles is that consumers really don’t care about climate change because, by and large, they aren’t willing to pay much to address it. To make this argument, skeptics of corporate climate action often point to the mounds of evidence showing that most consumers prioritize price over sustainability in their buying decisions.

It is true—and unsurprising—that price remains the top concern for most consumers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t care at all. Indeed, surveys suggest that consumers do care about climate change. They just don’t think it’s their responsibility to address it.

In a recent poll asking who bears responsibility for climate change, respondents answered decisively: companies, first and foremost, are responsible. In the June 4 University of Chicago survey, 62% of respondents said that industry bears significant responsibility in cutting emissions. That’s followed closely by 59% who say the same about the federal government. (I am the journalism fellow at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago).

Another survey released earlier this year by the consulting firm EY found that two-thirds of American consumers think that they have already done enough to address climate change and that energy companies should take the lead in reducing energy consumption.

An economics-minded reader might balk at the apparent contradiction in these findings. Companies can offer more climate friendly products in a range of industries right now without any further technological breakthroughs, but those costs would ultimately hit consumers in one way or another. In other words, consumers can’t have their cake and eat it, too.

But the findings are nonetheless worth reflecting on. For one, they throw cold water on the long-running campaigns by some companies and industry groups aimed at convincing individuals to take responsibility for climate change. Despite decades of pushing that message, only 41% of respondents to the Chicago survey said individuals bear significant responsibility for addressing climate change.

Extrapolate a little further, and the findings help make the case for companies to find ways to prioritize sustainability. For one, it’s worth noting that some consumers say they are willing to pay a sustainability premium, if only a small one. And behavioral economists have found that companies can effectively “ nudge" consumers into greener choices—think of making the default option the more sustainable one. Even consumers who aren’t willing to pay a premium for sustainability right now may see a company’s green products as a differentiator when the cost comes down.

In the long run, as more and more companies invest in sustainability efforts, sustainability metrics are likely to become less of a “nice-to-have” and more of a baseline for entry. Threading the cost and sustainability needle isn’t always easy, but it’s increasingly necessary.

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