In a 1995 paper, sociologist Ronald Inglehart claimed people would only be concerned about the environment “if they were rich enough not to have to fret about more basic things like food and shelter.” Today, the same sentiment is still pervasive in mainstream climate discourse, and some claim low-income households do not have the means to address climate change.
Low-income households — such as those earning less than $50,000 per year — are in fact equal participants, if not sometimes leaders, in the fight against climate change, according to a new Oliver Wyman Forum survey of 10,000 respondents across 11 countries.
Misconceptions about climate change action and income levels can spur feelings of anxiety and pessimism. Dispelling those misconceptions and positively recognizing the contribution of low-income households is critical to continue encouraging sustainable action.
MISCONCEPTION: Climate change isn’t a top priority for low-income households
REALITY: Climate change is the leading concern for low-income households
A common misconception is that low-income households have more pressing matters to concern themselves with than what may seem like a distant threat of climate change, like accessing healthcare or struggling with poverty.
In fact, households in the lowest income brackets care about climate change more than other issues. Nearly a quarter of individuals from low-income households cited climate change as the issue they personally care about most, which is twice the number that cited poverty and homelessness. Middle- and high-income households had similar rates of concern, challenging the belief that low-income households don’t have the awareness or energy to care.
MISCONCEPTION: Low-income households don’t purposefully act to fight climate change
REALITY: Low-income households can be leaders in certain sustainable energy and food behaviors
Low-income groups are often sustainable leaders in how they use energy, buy groceries, and dispose waste. More than one-third of low-income households, for example, report turning off unnecessary appliances to be more sustainable, compared to 27% of high-income households. Similarly, 30% use energy-efficient lighting, making them 20% more likely than high-income households to do so. When it comes to food waste, 27% of low-income households choose to compost compared to only 18% of high-income ones. While some may point to the cost-saving nature of these actions as the main motivator, respondents reported engaging in these sustainable behaviors specifically in hopes of combating climate change.
MISCONCEPTION: All income classes must address sustainability in the same way
REALITY: Different income classes can interact with sustainability in unique ways
Where low-income groups make sustainable, everyday choices like using less water or energy-efficient lighting, higher-income households have greater means, resources, and options to champion sustainability.
A third of those from high-income households vote on sustainable issues, compared to a quarter of middle-income households or just 1 in 5 low-income households. Wealthier groups generally participate in political activities at higher rates, according to one study by the Pew Research Center, and their involvement extends to sustainability as well. The same patterns hold true for sharing the issue on social media, researching climate change, fundraising, and volunteering: those with high incomes have more opportunities to donate their time.
Higher-income households are also uniquely empowered to put their money where their mouths are: 60% proactively seek out sustainable brands, and 85% are willing to pay a premium for sustainable goods, making them 31% more likely than low-income households to do so. In a sense, both income groups are leaders in certain categories of engagement with sustainability.
Climate action must be inclusive to succeed
Dispelling myths about the relationship between income and climate change is essential to creating a more inclusive and effective movement for sustainability. Recognizing the commitment and leadership of low-income households is especially critical because they report greater feelings of pessimism about climate change despite their high commitment. Sixty-five percent of those from low-income households, for example, feel that they or the people around them are unable to make an effective difference, making them 41% more likely to believe this than those from high-income households.
Pessimism contributes to inaction. Thirty-two percent of people across all income classes who care about climate change but do not purchase sustainable goods cite feelings of pessimism and hopelessness, making it the second greatest barrier to sustainable spend behind affordability concerns. Within low- and middle-income households, approximately 55% don’t feel like businesses are offering the right sustainable products and services for them, echoing the same concerns. To convince lower income households to buy more sustainably, businesses and governments will need to better demonstrate how their products, services, or programs can make a direct impact on the environment with better education, clearer labeling, or greater transparency on processes like manufacturing.
At the same time, it is also important to acknowledge the distinct advantages of higher-income households, who can use their resources and influence to promote sustainability in a variety of ways, from political to consumer action. Ultimately, efforts against climate change are most likely to succeed with broad-based action that includes all income groups.
Alicia Wang contributed to this article.