March 21st, 2023, Laura Piggott, Lukas Paleckis

Public attitudes towards sustainability: a YouGov Public showcase

New quantitative and qualitative research delves into how attitudes towards sustainability differ across the UK when it comes to prioritisation, responsibility and action.

Since 2011, YouGov has been tracking public perceptions of the most important issues facing the country. Although the environment is felt to be highly important, the economy and public health are consistently perceived as the top issues. Our research finds that the environment is often ranked in third or fourth place, suggesting that it continually takes a backseat to other more tangible and immediate concerns, such as the cost-of-living crisis and the Coronavirus pandemic.

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To explore competing public attitudes on the environment and sustainability, YouGov conducted a mixed methods research study, beginning with an online survey of over 10,000 UK adults followed by statistical segmentation analysis that revealed six unique segments of the population. Subsequently, a 60-person online qualitative community was run over one week to explore attitudes in more depth, with ten participants from each of the segments.

This study finds that differing priorities, perceptions of responsibility and sense of environmental impact are the key themes that characterise the six segments of the population and their attitudes towards sustainability. These segments are introduced below.

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The Hopeful Worriers

20% of UK adults

This segment believes that it is urgent we become more sustainable in light of climate change and are the ones most likely to suggest that it has had a significantly negative impact on their community and the world. However, they remain hopeful, believing that living sustainably is something we can strive for and achieve. They are the most likely to suggest they have implemented sustainable behaviours and are more likely than other segments to have high household income, and to be highly educated.

"In terms of the environment, I think that is everyone's responsibility. The government has a responsibility to force businesses to move towards more sustainable models, while businesses and individuals also have a responsibility to reduce their own environmental impact” (Hopeful Worrier from the qualitative study)

The Outside-Pointing Worriers

17% of UK adults

This segment is also highly concerned about the impact of climate change; they think we should be anxious about it and see a large negative impact in their communities and the world. However, they strongly believe that government and corporations should be doing more to act on climate change and enable individuals to maintain a sustainable lifestyle. Individuals in this segment are disproportionately young, with a very large young adult presence, and have higher than average education levels.

"If we do make changes then that's amazing and it will help, but it will be a drop in the ocean compared to what the corporations and governments could do.” (Outside-Pointing Worrier from the qualitative study)

The Disempowered Environmentalists

16% of UK adults

This segment can see the benefits of living sustainably but feel disempowered to take more personal responsibility due to the lack of progress they have observed. They are most likely segment to suggest living sustainably is uncommon and unaffordable. In their opinion, the main fault lies with corporations and the government, whom they feel should be most responsible for encouraging sustainability. This segment has the largest proportions of young and middle-aged individuals and higher than average household income.

“Organisations engaged in directing human activity directly or indirectly have the most responsibility because any change they make will have immediate and widespread effects. Any changes individuals make will not be effective unless extremely well organised.” (Disempowered Environmentalist from the qualitative study)

The Accountable Optimists

16.5% of UK adults

This segment expresses concern about climate change but feel more positive about the future than some other segments. They take responsibility for acting in an environmentally friendly manner and are more likely to believe that personal action can make a difference, irrespective of what the others are doing. However, they feel there are other challenges the country could be focusing on. This segment has the highest share of individuals aged 65 or above, alongside the largest share of people living in low-income households.

“I play my part with my family. We do a lot of recycling and try to get clothes reused and donated so we ensure items are being well used to its maximum use.’ (Accountable Optimist from the qualitative study)’

The Externalising Passives

20% of UK adults

This segment is unconcerned about climate change and takes very little responsibility for acting and living sustainably. They feel detached from the subject and think attention should be focused on other social issues. They tend to feel that there is little point in taking individuals action to tackle climate change unless everyone changes their lifestyle. They believe that the government in particular should be leading the charge on sustainability, as opposed to individuals. They are also disinterested in implementing behaviours that might move them into a more sustainable lifestyle. This segment contains the one of the highest proportions of low-educated individuals.

"The current cost of living has made me be less picky on being sustainable. At the end of the day, I have to feed my family, I can't be picky and choose things [that] are more beneficial to the environment because they are expensive." (Externalising Passive from the qualitative community).

The Climate Change Agnostics

12.5% of UK adults

This segment is most detached from the issue of sustainability and by far the most likely to suggest climate change is a naturally occurring phenomena or not real. They do not tend to see the negative consequences of climate change locally or worldwide, and don’t recognise benefits to acting sustainably. This segment think collective action is more powerful than individual efforts when it comes to climate change, and place responsibility outside themselves and onto the ‘big players’, such as businesses and the government.

However, they don’t believe the environment should be a priority for those in power. Demographically, this segment has the highest share of older individuals, particularly in the 50-65 age cohort. Their household income and education levels tend to be lower.

“Reducing meat is just not something I want to do - I enjoy meat! ”(Climate Change Agnostic from the qualitative study).

Download the full report to learn more about these segments’ attitudes and public opinion on sustainability. The full report includes analysis on the following key themes:

  • Prioritisation of sustainability – a comparison of prioritisation between environment and sustainability to other issues facing the country.
  • Responsibility of sustainability – public perceptions of who currently is, and should be responsible for acting on sustainability, and how these attitudes translate into personal action.
  • Consumer action and impact – an understanding on how much segments consider sustainability when making purchasing decisions, and what the UK population would be willing to do to live more sustainably.
  • Information and education – a deep dive on sources of information on sustainability, and the impact of embedding sustainable practices in schools.
  • Pathway to change – providing four key steps to integrate sustainability into public conversation and increase its salience.


YouGov conducted this research across three stages:

1) An online survey with 10,104 UK adults from the 19th of July to the 1st of August 2022. The sample was structured and weighted to be representative of the population by age, gender, region, social grade, education, past vote (2019 General Election vote and 2016 EU referendum) and political attention. Find out more about Custom Research.

2) Statistical segmentation analysis analysed a data set of over 10,000 individuals with complete responses to all segmentation survey items. The underlying factor variables were computed using polychoric and continuous correlations, oblimin rotations, the minimum residual estimation, and the ten Berge method for generating scores. The clustering procedure used the k-means algorithm and Euclidean distances, paired with the k-means++ initialisation algorithm. The selection of the solution rested on a variety of compactness measures, such as silhouette width and within-cluster variance, alongside subjective appraisals in terms of interpretability and strategic usefulness - all results have been weighted. Find out more about Qualitative Research.

3) A 60-person online community over one week from 3rd of October to 9th October. Ten participants from each of the segments identified were included. Find out more about Qualitative Research.