How Americans Feel About Companies’ Environmental Responsibility

They’d rather you didn’t pollute, thanks–even if it means making less money.

How Americans Feel About Companies’ Environmental Responsibility
[Photos: Mrkit via Shutterstock]

Now that the climate deal has been struck, it’s time for the country to start thinking about how we can change the economy to one that generates less emissions, to meet the goals we set in Paris. You will hear arguments that Americans believe protecting the environment is not as important as generating profits and moving the economy. At JUST Capital, we surveyed over 43,000 Americans on corporate behavior, and our findings show conclusively that Americans do care about corporate pollution even to the detriment of the corporate bottom line.


When we conducted our interviews, asking people what issues mattered most to them when it came to corporate behavior, we did not offer a list of topics from which to choose. There were no predetermined issues of importance. Therefore, any concern that made our top ten list was, by definition, important across the vast span of demographics our survey included. Environmental Impact ranked high among peoples’ concerns—sixth, in fact, closely behind Product Benefit and Harm, Human Rights Record, and Governance and Profitability, and ahead of other attributes such as Job Creation, Customer Satisfaction, and Corporate Ethics and Honesty.

So how does the public in the U.S. view corporate environmental impact? Well, 90% say that a company that pollutes heavily on a regular basis is “unjust,” even if it is generating a lot of profit for its shareholders. Across political affiliation, this number had little disparity, with 89% of liberals and moderates saying that such a company is unjust, with 91% of conservatives and 90% of the apolitical respondents agreeing. The greatest disparity came between age groups: 84% of millennials and 88% of gen-Xers called a company that pollutes heavily even while generating consistent profits unjust. It was actually higher for older respondents: 94% of baby boomers and 95% of golden agers said so. All told, though, the numbers are overwhelming.

Should an environmental accident happen, though, 66% of our respondents said a corporation can be forgiven if it takes immediate action to clean up its mess. The age group most likely to forgive are the golden agers at 71% while those least likely to forgive are millennials at 64%. Politically, conservatives at 68% are most likely to forgive with liberals right behind at 66%, and the apolitical at 62%.

Lastly, when our respondents were asked what overall grade they would give American corporations in terms of how well they are meeting their obligations to the environment, they gave a C.

How companies and stakeholders decide to utilize this information will be an independent process, but it’s in everyone’s best interest to understand the American viewpoint to build an economy that encompasses all of our values. Our poll has taught us that corporate environmental performance is important to Americans. It’s not identified as the most important issue, but companies now have access to this information and can gain a better understanding of how people react to a variety of corporate environmental issues. With this knowledge comes power, and gives companies and stakeholders additional tools to make critical decisions when considering their overall goals and plans for the environmental performance of their corporations.

We can feel confident that the environmental impact of our corporations does matter to Americans, sometimes a great deal. The bigger picture is that economic security, human security, and environmental security are frequently inter-related in complex and mutually reinforcing ways. This means that solutions to these issues must also, be systemic and inter-disciplinary, and transcendent of conventional ways of thinking.

About the author

Martin Whittaker is CEO of JUST Capital, a nonprofit dedicated to aligning corporate behavior with the values of the American people. A veteran of the sustainable finance and impact investing industry, Martin previously held senior management positions at Sonen Capital, MissionPoint Capital, Swiss Re and Innovest.