This Earth Day It’s Time to Put Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

NEW YORK, N.Y. – April 21, 2016 – Earth Day, April 22, is here and The Harris Poll explored how much Americans care about the environment and the level of support – donating, volunteering, participating in events and advocating – they provided to organizations working on these issues over the past twelve months. While Americans care – and many care quite a bit – the level of concern for the environment trails behind that for other issues. Furthermore, actual support for environmental causes lags far behind the level of care, primarily because we seem to want better proof of the return on our investment.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,120 U.S. adults surveyed online between March 23-28, 2016.

The vast majority of adults (93%) care about the environment at least somewhat, including animal extinction, climate change, land and water conservation, with 72% saying they care a lot or a little; just 7% don’t care at all. Young adults, those 18-34, are most likely to say they care about the environment a lot or a little (77%) and are the only age cohort where at least half (51%) care a lot. Smaller majorities (between 67% and 73%) of adults over 35 care at least a little.

Yet, many more adults say they care about the environment than take actions to show it. Two-thirds (65%) of adults have not provided any kind of support for nonprofits or charities working on environmental issues over the past twelve months. Just one-third (35%) have provided support by donating (14%), advocating (12%), participating in an event (10%), or volunteering (8%) for a nonprofit or charity focused on the environment.

Millennials are most likely to have supported an environmental organization over the past twelve months (43%), more so than those who are older (38% of 35-44; 30% of 45-54 year olds; 30% of 55-64 and 31% of those 65 or older). Interestingly, women are more likely than men to care about the environment a lot or a little (75% vs. 69%, respectively) but less likely to have provided support (31% women vs. 39% of men).

Why the disconnect?

For starters, Americans say they care more about other issues than the environment. In fact, the environment falls behind all other issues examined, with the exception of gender equality. The proportion who cared a lot or a little about the environment (72%), while quite high, is less than that for access to clean water (88%); access to healthcare (85%); hunger and food waste (83%), ending poverty (80%) and access to primary and secondary education (77%). Two-thirds (67%) of adults care about gender equality a lot or a little.

There are a variety of reasons why adults may be hesitant to support a cause they seem to care about so strongly and here we see that more is needed to demonstrate the value, effectiveness and positive outcomes of these organizations. Among those who did not provide any kind of support for organizations working on behalf of any of these issues, the most common reason is lack of trust that donations are going directly to those who need it most (42%). Notably, this is also true among those who care a lot or little about the environment (41% cite this lack of trust as a reason for lack of support). 

Other reasons for not supporting these organizations include:

  • A belief that they’re already doing their part by changing their own behavior through things like recycling, conserving water and providing equal opportunities for men and women in their workplace (23%),
  • Other issues being more important (18%),
  • They’d rather get involved in local issues instead of global issues (14%),
  • They never hear about them (13%), and
  • They never hear about any progress being made (11%).

Young adults have a more nuanced view: one in three (32%) cite lack of trust; the same proportion (32%) say they are already doing their part by changing their own behavior and 29% say they never hear about these organizations. Older adults are far more likely to lack trust that donations are being directed to those who need them most (53% of 55-64 year olds and 52% of those 65+). Adults over 55 are also far more likely to say other issues are more important to them (24% 55-64 year olds and 27% of those 65+ vs. 9% of 18-34 year olds).

When asked to speculate about why other people have not provided support, lack of trust is even stronger. Three-quarters (74%) of those who did not support an environmental organization believe others lack trust as do two-thirds (66%) of those who provided support to environmentally focused nonprofits or charities.

So, what’s an organization to do?

The data suggest that nonprofits and charities working on behalf of the environment have been successful in raising awareness of issues and getting attention for pressing issues. The data are also clear that organizations need to be doing more to demonstrate and communicate their impact to prospective donors and other audiences. The message needs to be more relevant to Americans in their day to day lives. While younger adults are believers and more of their care is translating into action, older adults need more convincing before they are likely to open their wallets wider.



This Harris Poll was conducted online, in English, within the United States between March 23-28, 2016 among 2,120 adults. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population.  Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. 

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

The Harris Poll® #27, April 21, 2016

By Michele Salomon, Client Director, The Harris Poll