One person doesn’t make much of a difference. Ugh.

by May 10, 2023

Shelton Stat of the Week

Over ¾ of the people that we surveyed from around the world feel that companies and governments are most responsible for changing practices to positively impact the environment.
Eco Pulse®, 2023 (Global)

I’ve been on my soapbox a lot lately preaching that companies need to tell their “fighting climate change” stories as loudly as their recycled content stories. My rationale has been two-fold:

  1. Companies spend a lot of money and energy on their net zero work, so they should get credit for that in the court of public opinion.
  2. We’re in an all-hands-on-deck emergency — we need EVERYONE reducing their emissions, and companies should be engaging individuals into action.

As part of our analysis of our recent Eco Pulse® Survey conducted globally (which I talked about in my last post), we went down this path. Specifically, we asked the question, “how much difference can one individual make?” The United Nations (UN) has already figured this out and the answer is: not enough.


Let’s do the math for individuals and then we’ll connect the dots back to the role companies need to play (and why they need to tell their stories). Note that all of the data below comes from the UN.

At a global scale, we know who the biggest GHG emitters are — the US, China, India, and Russia lead the world in total emissions. In fact, while American and Russian emissions are stagnant compared to 1990, India and China are emitting more than they did in 1990.

At a per capita level, though, the big players change quite drastically, with people in countries like Qatar and Palau carrying some of the largest environmental footprints. For an individual in the US, average annual emissions were 19.3 tons in 2018. So how would an average person in America reduce that to a healthy emissions target? For starters, the UN says that to achieve a healthy climate, individuals need to limit their emissions to 2.5 tons annually, at most. So that means we each need to lose 16.8 tons of emissions.

Losing 16 human pounds is hard enough … how could any of us lose 16.8 tons of emissions?

Data sources:,

Well, there are things we can do as the chart here illustrates. Some of these don’t cost anything, like reducing food waste or going vegan (though they do require effort). The big impact efforts, like installing renewables and driving an electric vehicle cost a lot. And even if we spend all that money and put in all that effort, we still come up short.

The moral of the story is that reducing carbon emissions is a systemic problem, not really an individual action problem. Many of the changes an individual will need to make to reduce their emissions relate to systems individuals have been forced into — needing a car because a city lacks public transport or a global world that requires travel, and much more. Individuals live within a system created by governmental and corporate entities (think rules of law, availability of products, complex supply chains, lobbying), so individuals can only do so much within that system — the true solution requires system change by those who created it.

And, as you might imagine, our latest Eco Pulse® global data puts responsibility for fixing that system squarely at the feet of companies and governments. 42% of people surveyed in all the major global regions say companies are very strongly responsible for changing their practices to positively impact the environment, while only 34% say individuals are very strongly responsible for doing the same. (In the US, 31% say companies are very strongly responsible vs. 25% who say individuals are.)

Bottom line, we should all do our part. But the real change required is going to have to come from companies and governments. And since most folks put the burden of responsibility on companies and governments — not on individuals — companies need to talk about what they’re doing (because most companies are indeed taking some action). If you don’t talk about it, people will assume you’re doing nothing. And doing nothing will not be viewed well — especially once people start to figure out how little they can actually impact all by themselves.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.