When it comes to the environment, education affects our actions

21 March 2011

The more highly educated are more likely to display their environmental credentials through what they buy rather than with actions such as turning off lights, according to findings from Understanding Society, the world’s largest household panel survey, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and managed by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. 

The first set of findings from the survey are based on data from more than 22,000 individuals and show that people with degrees are 25 per cent more likely, on average, than people with no education qualifications to adopt pro-environmental behaviours, at least in terms of paying more for environmentally-friendly products. However, they are less likely to turn off the TV overnight or to use public transport.

Overall the survey, which will follow 40,000 UK households over many years, found that 60 per cent of people believed that a major environmental disaster is pending if things continue on their current course, and just over half the respondents (53 per cent) say they 'do quite a few things that are environmentally friendly' or are 'environmentally friendly in most things or everything' they do. 

Nonetheless, people’s willingness to behave in an environmentally-friendly way comes with conditions as 59 per cent of those surveyed agreed that 'any changes I make to help the environment need to fit in with my lifestyle' and just half (50 per cent) would be prepared to pay more for environmentally friendly products.

Professor Peter Lynn at the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) which manages Understanding Society at the University of Essex, said: "These findings offer an interesting suggestion that more highly-educated people may be more willing to take environmentally-motivated principled actions such as buying recycled paper products or avoiding the purchase of  over-packaged products and yet are less willing than others to take relatively small actions that may be more of a personal inconvenience."

The survey found that:

  • women are more likely than men to adopt pro-environmental behaviours, for example they are 4per cent more likely, on average, to be willing to pay more for environmentally-friendly products;

  • the presence of dependent children in the household is associated with a lower willingness to pay more for environmentally friendly products;

  • employed people seem less likely to adopt pro-environmental behaviours - especially by putting on more clothes when cold and reducing the frequency of flights - than people who are outside the labour market.

Understanding Society also reveals that a significant minority have a defeatist attitude towards combating climate change.  One in five (21 per cent) think that it is too late to do anything about climate change and nearly a third (29 per cent) believe it is not worth Britain trying to combat climate change, because other countries will just cancel out what we do.

Professor Lynn added: "These initial findings suggest that people’s behaviour is motivated by considerations other than environmental concern such as income and personal resources. These motivations need to be better understood if policy makers and civil society organisations looking to change people’s behaviours are to make any genuine headway. There clearly remains across all sections of society a considerable reluctance to take part in environmentally-friendly behaviour that has a personal cost, even though the importance of doing so is recognised by the majority of people."

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Notes for editors

  1. About the researcher: Peter Lynn is Professor of Survey Methodology at the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER). His research interests lie in all areas of quantitative survey methodology.

  2. The findings above are taken from Chapter 12 of 'Understanding Society: Early findings from the first wave of the UK’s household longitudinal study'. Chapter 12 'Environmental Attitudes and Behaviour: who cares about climate change?' by Peter Lynn and Simonetta Longhi analyses the questions asked about environmental behaviour and identifies some of the socio-demographics characteristics associated with these behaviours. The full chapter can be found at http://research.understandingsociety.org.uk/findings/early-findings

  3. Understanding Society is a world leading study of the socio-economic circumstances in 40,000 British households. The study allows for deeper analysis of a wide range of sections of the population as they respond to regional, national and international change. Understanding Society will greatly enhance our insight into the pathways that influence peoples longer term occupational trajectories; their health and well-being, their financial circumstances and personal relationships. Understanding Society also breaks new ground with its interdisciplinary focus. The study will capture biomedical data on 20,000 participants and place this alongside rich social histories, helping us weigh the extent to which people's environment influences their health.

  4. Understanding Society has been commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The Research Team is led by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) delivers the Study.

  5. The ESRC have contributed £27 million towards the funding of Understanding Society, and have successfully secured a total of £19.4 million from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Large Facilities Capital Fund. A further £2.61 million has been secured from a consortium of Government Departments. This funding will support the first five waves of the study until 2015. It is envisaged that the study will continue for up to 20 years.

  6. The ESRC is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2010/11 is £218 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.