Friday, May 09, 2008

US Consumers Ranked Last in Making Green Choices

by Brian Handwerk
National Geographic News
May 7, 2008

A new global survey reveals which country's citizens have the most environmentally friendly lifestyles by examining the impact of individual consumer behavior.

The National Geographic Society and the international polling firm GlobeScan today unveiled "Greendex 2008: Consumer Choice and the Environment—A Worldwide Tracking Survey."

"The Greendex gives us an unprecedented, meaningful look at how consumers across the globe are behaving," said Terry Garcia, National Geographic's executive vice president of mission programs.

Consumers in Brazil and India tied as most "green," while those in the United States scored lowest, or most wasteful.

To create the survey, GlobeScan conducted Internet surveys of consumers in 14 countries, which together represent more than half of the world's population and use about 75 percent of its energy.

Rather than measuring each nation's environmental impact, the Greendex compares the behaviors of individuals in four key areas: housing, transportation, food, and consumer goods.

Brazilians and Indians each scored 60 on the sustainable-consumption scale. Citizens of other nations scored as follows: China (56.1); Mexico (54.3); Hungary (53.2); Russia (52.4); Great Britain, Germany and Australia (each at 50.2); Spain (50); Japan (49.1); France (48.7); Canada (48.5); and the U.S. (44.9).

Face-to-face studies were conducted in Egypt and Nigeria, because limited Internet penetration there did not allow for a full representation of national demographics, according to the survey organizers. These countries were not scored because of the differing methodology.

Greendex scores were based on responses to questions about 65 sustainable-development variables. The variables were determined after consultation with input 27 independent environmental consultants.

Housing factors included dwelling size; energy use for heating, cooling, and appliances; and water needs. Brazilians topped this category because they typically have smaller homes, rarely use air conditioning or heating, and rely heavily on on-demand, tankless water-heating systems.

Transportation behaviors measured included ownership rates and average usage of motorized vehicles, length of daily commutes, and utilization of public transport. Chinese scored highest on transportation, because, at least for now, most rely on bicycles or walking and drive few motorized vehicles per capita.

The foods category polled consumers on their consumption of locally produced foods, as well as their relative consumption of bottled water, meat, and seafood—products that typically have high environmental impact. Indians had the greenest food habits because they consume little meat and eat many fruits and vegetables.

The goods category looked at the items that people typically buy, reuse, and discard—including both day-to-day purchases and larger items such as televisions. Consumer preference for environmentally friendly products and packaging, as well as overall levels of personal consumption, were also considered.

Greendex also surveyed environmental attitudes in each of the 14 nations. Though these results were not included in the scoring system, the survey found that the nations who displayed the most environmentally conscious attitudes also tended to score higher on the Greendex.

Nick Nuttall, a spokesperson for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), welcomed the index results.

"It is certainly illuminating and perhaps overturns the common perception that it is only consumers in the rich countries who are environmentally aware and eco-active on the High Street and in their purchasing habits," he said.

The Greendex also found that people in developing nations felt more responsible for environmental problems and worried more about the impacts of global warming.

Lloyd Hetherington of GlobeScan explained that the new index measured both discretionary and essential consumption.

"Essential consumption is sometimes dictated by geography," he explained. "If you live in a very cold climate, you have to heat your house. The discretionary part is how you do that—what fuel you choose and how you decide where to set the thermostat."

One inescapable result of the Greendex survey is the discrepancy in scores between developing and industrialized nations.

"The biggest concern I have is that [it appears to be] a kind of inverse poverty scale. When you look at the map you can see that the poorest countries are ranked the best, and the richest are ranked the worst," said environmental consultant Michael Brower, co-author of the Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"The poorest people in the poorest countries would love to consume more."

Greendex authors acknowledged that consumers living in developing nations are more likely to live in small residences, use few electricity-driven appliances, make shorter commutes, and use human-powered and public transport—often out of necessity rather than choice.

Those in developed nations, on the other hand, have larger homes, use energy for heat and air-conditioning, and own and drive cars.

"The average consumer [in the developing world] has a lifestyle that is more environmentally sustainable," said National Geographic's Garcia. "But these same consumers express a desire for increased consumption and believe that people in all nations should have the opportunity to live the lifestyles of the wealthiest nations."

The Greendex's "Market Basket" component, which includes national macroeconomic indicators of consumption gathered by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research organization run by Economist magazine, also shows a very high correlation between Greendex scores and energy use per capita.

"Regardless of why consumers behave in an environmentally friendly way, because of their climate, income, or more conscious decisions, the fact is that on average consumers in developing countries have less environmental impact than the average consumers in industrialized countries," added Eric Whan of GlobeScan.

"And in this sense it doesn't really matter why they do."

The survey organizers say the results will serve as a baseline for future reports that will track changes in consumer environmental impact.

The low scores for many industrialized nations show that they have a lot of work to do on environmental attitudes, while the booming economies of the developing world provide serious concerns, the researchers say.

Growing nations like China and India are already undergoing serious lifestyle changes, including more cars, larger homes, increased heating and air conditioning, and shifts towards more resource-intensive diets.

The UN's Nuttall hopes the survey can help spur governments to develop in less wasteful and more environmentally conscious ways.

"Thus there is an urgent need to ensure that this economic growth does not echo the 20th century growth of North America, Europe, and Japan and that developing economies are given the technologies and the creative financing needed to avoid the mistakes of the past."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society


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