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Nat Geo Greendex Survey Reveals Consumer Paradox

A new global analysis released by the National Geographic Society finds a puzzling disconnect between consumer perception and sustainable behavior, which seems to be linked to how people in emerging markets and developed nations experience environmental challenges. 

In the 2012 Greendex, U.S. consumers rank last of 17 countries surveyed in sustainable behavior. U.S. consumers also are among the least likely to feel "guilty about the impact" they have on the environment, yet they are near the top in believing individual choices could make a difference (47%).

On the flip side, the study shows that consumers who feel the guiltiest about their impact - those in China, India and Brazil - lead the pack in sustainable consumer choices, but are least confident that individual action can help the environment.

On the surface, this observation suggests guilt might be a useful marketing strategy for green products and services; however, marketing professionals throughout the Sustainable Brands community have argued otherwise on numerous occasions. In April, Karen Barnes of the Shelton group wrote about the difference between shame and guilt, and how they relate to values and behavior change.

National Geographic says the findings highlight an opportunity for governments, companies and NGOs to help empower consumers. "National Geographic developed the Greendex in 2008 to explore the behaviors and attitudes of consumers worldwide over time, to see how they relate to the environment," said Terry Garcia, Executive Vice President for Mission Programs at the National Geographic Society. "The 2012 Greendex shows a wide range of perspectives among global consumers as to their views about their own individual impact and responsibility as well as their power to take action. When compared with Greendex calculations about the sustainability of consumers' individual behaviors, the results are striking."

Consumers in emerging markets are among the most likely to say that environmental problems are having a negative impact on their health, and they are more inclined than others to expect that global warming will "worsen [their] way of life" within their lifetime; concern about air and water pollution is highest among Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian and Argentinean consumers as well as in Russia and India. Americans, meanwhile, express greatest concern about economic impacts: The economy is the top concern, and the cost of energy and fuel is second - both more prominent than in developing countries.

"While there can be many factors that affect individual behavior, the paradoxes that we see in this survey are intriguing and potentially encouraging," Garcia said. "Clearly, issues related to sustainability are resonating with some consumer segments. Gaining a better understanding of what's behind those differences presents an opportunity to inspire and enable broader changes in behavior."

The Greendex surveys individual consumer behavior and material lifestyle of 17,000 consumers in 17 countries around the world, and measures the specific choices and behaviors that contribute most to a consumer's overall ecological impact - the type of car you drive, the way you heat your house, the kind of foods you eat. A complex algorithm is applied to results to generate an index score - a Greendex score - for each individual respondent that reflects the relative environmental impact of his or her consumption patterns. Individual scores are averaged to create a mean score for consumers in each country. Combined with questions about cultural drivers and perceptions, the Greendex gives a comprehensive view into the state of sustainable consumption.

Some specific findings from the four top areas of consumer behavior explored by the Greendex include:

Transportation - French and American consumers are most likely to report that they drive alone in a car or truck: 56 percent of French consumers and 55 percent of Americans say they do so every day or almost every day. Chinese (20 percent) and Indian consumers (16 percent) are least likely to do so. Across the 17 countries surveyed, 36 percent say they drive alone regularly. Americans are least likely to use public transportation: Only 7 percent say they use it every day or most days. Russians are most likely, with 43 percent. On average in the countries studied, just 24 percent of consumers use public transportation daily or almost daily. Americans are also least likely to bike or walk to their destination: Just 34 percent say they do so often or always. Chinese (73 percent) and Hungarian consumers (72 percent) are most likely to do so. Across the 17 countries in total, 58 percent say they walk or bike often or almost always.

Housing - Spanish and German consumers are the most likely to say that they keep heating and cooling at low settings to save energy often or all the time (69 percent), with American and French consumers tied in second place with 67 percent. Russians are the least likely, at 25 percent. Brazilians and Germans are the most likely to report minimizing the use of fresh water often or all the time (69 percent); of the least likely, Americans are third from the bottom with 37 percent, followed by Swedes (29 percent) and Spanish consumers (27 percent). Brazilians (80 percent) and Australians (70 percent) are most likely report washing laundry in cold water to save energy; Swedes (12 percent) and Russians (10 percent) are least likely to do so. In total, 48 percent of consumers in the countries surveyed say they do so; Americans are about average with 51 percent.

Food - Argentineans eat the most beef: 61 percent eat it every day or several times a week, as opposed to 35 percent of Americans and just 9 percent of Indians. Globally, 28 percent of consumers eat beef every day or several times per week, making it one of the most environmentally intensive food sources. Chinese consumers eat the most vegetables: 63 percent eat them daily, while just 37 percent of Americans do the same. Chinese consumers also report the greatest increase in meat consumption over the past five years: 9 percent greatly increased and an additional 28 percent somewhat increased meat consumption.

Goods - Just 22 percent of consumers globally say they try to buy things used or pre-owned instead of new. American consumers are among the most likely to choose used over new goods (31 percent), topped only by Swedes (32 percent). Consumers most likely to recycle often or all of the time are Canadian (83 percent), British (82%), German (81%) and Australian (80%). Worldwide, 61 percent of consumers recycle often or all the time. 69 percent of Americans report recycling regularly; South Koreans are least likely to recycle, at just 29 percent. 95 percent of consumers worldwide report owning, renting or leasing at least one TV and 14 percent report households with four or more. 96 percent of Americans report possessing at least one computer and 96 percent say they have at least one TV.

Bart King is a PR/marketing communications consultant and principal at Cleantech Communications.


Bart King is the principal of New Growth Communications, a network of affiliated content producers and strategists serving clients in the emerging green economy. He is also an associate editor for Sustainable Brands. Follow him @bart_kingGoogle+

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