Circular Economy

Which global consumers are helping to save the planet?

Plastic bottles in recycling bins.

Recycling is the one of the most popular ways for people to engage with environmental issues. Image: Freepik.

Simon Cooper
Partner, Oliver Wyman Forum
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  • Public and private sector must lead the way in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Consumers can also play their part by making environmentally friendly lifestyle choices.
  • Recent survey reveals the top green choices people around the world are making to reduce their carbon footprint.

Most people want the world to go green. But first, more of us need to agree on how. While governments and corporations commit to net-zero emissions, consumers are covering their own tracks. A whopping 94% of almost 5,600 people we recently surveyed said they’re making at least one lifestyle change in 2021 to lower their personal carbon footprint.

Individuals were polled across seven countries and asked what, if any, sustainability-related behaviours they expect to change this year. Americans, it seems, believe more energy efficient homes are the key. Chinese want to buy electric cars. Spaniards and Italians think locally produced and sustainable products will do the trick. And only 3% globally plan to start to use socially responsible investments like mutual funds.

Have you read?

Substantially more action across the globe is required to keep human-driven global warming below the 2C needed to avert the dire consequences of climate change.

This decade is critical and we’ll need to act fast. The sooner we restrict the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, the less we’ll deplete the global “carbon budget,” and the easier it will be to reach net-zero in the future.

We need to reduce our individual carbon emissions to two tons a person globally by 2050 to prevent temperatures from climbing.

Simon Cooper

It will be crucial for governments and companies to do the heavy lifting. Governments can create the right incentives to drive behavioural changes, and corporations must take responsibility for their emissions.

But consumers also have a significant role to play in solving this enormous challenge. The average carbon footprint globally is about four tons, with Americans emitting four times that amount per person. By some estimates, we need to reduce our individual carbon emissions to two tons a person globally by 2050 to prevent temperatures from climbing.

Committed to changing lifestyles

The majority of people we surveyed are ready to try lifestyle changes. Approximately 98% of Chinese people plan to make at least one lifestyle change in 2021 to lower their emissions. The Italians and the French are a close second with 96%, followed by 95% in Spain, 94% in the UK, and 92% in Germany.


Even in last place, 88% of people in the US intend to lead greener lives. The number there is slightly lower among seniors, at least 83%, but at least 93% among those under 40.

Driving less, recycling more

One of the most popular global lifestyle changes of the dozen we asked about is recycling or reusing products for another purpose – with almost 20% of those in Italy, Spain, the UK, and the US participating, but only 10% in China and 12% in Germany.

Consumers also are committed to driving less, but not necessarily taking more mass transit, at least this year. We found that 14% of those in the US and Spain, 12% in the UK, and 11% in China and Germany said they were driving less, but only 4% of Americans expect to use mass transit more in 2021.


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Almost 90% of Chinese people surveyed are willing to pay extra fees to decrease congestion compared to only 40% of Americans, 39% British, and 27% of Germans.

The Europeans also are consuming more locally produced foods and products, with Spain topping the list at 14%, followed by Italy at 13%, and France and Germany at 12%. The Italians and Spanish are also walking and biking more at 16%. The US, not so much – only 8%.

Forget the broccoli

But we’re still not ready to skip flights or filet mignon. People plan to keep flying on both long and short trips. At 4% the Italians were the least willing to avoid flights, and the Germans the most willing to give it up at 9% for short and 8% for long trips.

And while most of us know that it takes a lot more land, water, and feed to produce a cow than a cauliflower, most are not trading burgers for broccoli. While 10% of those in the UK said they are eating no or less meat, only 5% are in China. Slightly more at 8% in Italy and the US, and 9% in France and Germany.

People might disagree on how to go green, but every bike ride, electric vehicle purchase, and energy efficient home decreases our global footprint. We just need to dramatically quicken the pace with governments and corporations leading the way, and consumers adapting lifestyle changes to help save the planet.

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