WASHINGTON—Environmentally friendly behavior among consumers in 10 of 17 countries has increased over the past year, according to the third annual survey by the National Geographic Society and international polling firm GlobeScan. The 17-country survey looked at consumer behaviors that have an impact on the environment, including their transportation patterns, household energy and resource use, and consumption of food and everyday consumer goods, as well as what consumers were doing to minimize that impact. American consumers’ behavior still ranks as the least sustainable of consumers in all countries surveyed since the survey’s inception three years ago, followed by Canadian and French consumers, though improvement was seen.
The survey found that environmentally friendly consumer behavior, as measured by the Greendex, has increased from 2008 levels in all but one of the 14 countries polled in both 2008 and 2010, but that suspicion of so-called “greenwashing”—companies making false claims about the environmental impact of their products—is the most significant barrier to further improvement. Out of a list of ten obstacles to doing more for the environment, the perception of “greenwashing” emerged as the most frequently cited factor, followed closely by governments and industries failing to take action.
Released on the eve of United Nations World Environment Day, “Greendex 2010: Consumer Choice and the Environment—A Worldwide Tracking Survey” is a comprehensive measure of consumer behavior in 65 areas relating to housing, transportation, food, and consumer goods. Greendex 2010 ranks average consumers in 17 countries according to the environmental impact of their consumption patterns and is the only survey of its kind.
As in 2008, the top-scoring consumers of 2010 are in the developing economies of India, Brazil, China, and Mexico, in descending order. Consumers registering the largest 2010 versus 2008 increase in environmentally sustainable consumer behavior are the Indians, Russians, and Americans. Environmentally sustainable behavior among average consumers in India, China, Mexico, Russia, Hungary, Japan, Great Britain and Canada has increased steadily each year. In contrast, consumers in Germany, Spain, Sweden and France have slipped slightly over the past year.
As in 2009, much of the increase in the overall 2010 Greendex scores was due to more sustainable behavior in the housing category, in which the Greendex measures the energy and resources consumed by people’s homes. Americans, Hungarians, British, and Australians saw marked increases in this area, as consumers made moves to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. In some countries, economic stimulus programs may have been a factor in motivating change. Changes in personal behavior within the categories of personal transportation, food, and consumer goods were mixed, with some countries improving and some deteriorating.
The results show that both cost considerations and environmental concerns motivated consumers to adopt more environmentally sustainable behavior over the past year. When consumers who reported decreases in their energy consumption were asked why their consumption declined, most cited cost as one of their top two reasons, but significant percentages ranging from approximately 20 percent to 50 percent also said environmental concerns were one of the main reasons for the decrease.
This year’s survey also revealed a number of barriers to more environmentally sustainable behavior that exist for consumers. It suggests that the perception of ‘‘greenwashing’’ (identified by 44 percent) is a more significant barrier to environmentally friendly behavior than the financial cost of making an effort (31 percent). Another important barrier is the sense that individual efforts are not worthwhile when governments and industries fail to take action (identified by 40 percent). GlobeScan’s analysis of the results reveals that the perceptions of “greenwashing” and government and industry inaction directly or indirectly suppress more sustainable consumption and put downward pressure on Greendex scores.
Despite Indian consumers’ lifestyles continuing to emerge as the most environmentally sustainable of any of the countries surveyed according to the Greendex, Indians are also the most likely to cite the perception that the seriousness of environmental problems is exaggerated as a barrier to action. In all other countries surveyed, fewer than a quarter say they are discouraged from taking action because they consider environmental problems are exaggerated, while 40 percent of Indians feel this way. In the longer term, these perceptions may act as a brake on long-term adoption of sustainable lifestyles in India as the subcontinent’s economy continues to develop.
“Sustainable lifestyles are clearly starting to enter the mainstream despite recent economic challenges,” said GlobeScan CEO Lloyd Hetherington. “The year-on-year improvements we’re seeing in many countries suggest that consumers are increasingly open to greater engagement with environmental issues.”
Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s executive vice president of Mission Programs, added, “Over time, the Greendex will be vital to tracking changes in sustainable consumption at the global level and within specific countries. In the short term, our hope is to encourage sustainable consumption by vastly increasing consumer awareness. While I’m encouraged by improvements worldwide, there remains an urgent need for people everywhere to look at how their behavior is affecting the environment and to minimize their environmental footprint.”
In comparison to only 1 percent of Americans, 37 percent of Chinese consumers mention the environment as the most important issue facing their country, up 15 percentage points from 2009. Indians and Russians are also increasingly likely to think that the environment is their countries’ most important national issue, with consumers in all three of these countries being among the four—including Australia—most likely to think so.
Consumers in emerging economies continue to round out the top tier of the Greendex ranking, while the bottom six countries are all industrialized countries.
UN Under Secretary General and UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner, speaking on the eve of World Environment Day whose main global host in 2010 is Rwanda, said, “Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of this study is the continuing and indeed increasing environmental literacy of developing and rapidly developing economy consumers in Asia and Latin America, including India, Brazil and China.
“Consumer interest and pressure has the potential to spur business on toward providing and manufacturing goods and services, which in turn can move societies towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient and more competitive Green Economy urgently needed to put sustainability into the 21st century,” he added.
About the Greendex
About National Geographic
About World Environment Day
Individuals around the world can find out where they rank on the Greendex scale by visiting www.nationalgeographic.com/greendex and taking an abbreviated survey. They can also examine the Greendex survey results by country, measure their knowledge of some basic green issues against what others around the world know, and get tips on living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.