This year’s Greendex, a study conducted by National Geographic and GlobeScan, revealed some intriguing patterns about environmentally sustainable consumption around the world today. According to the report, which tracks data from 17,000 participants in 17 countries, American consumers lead the least sustainable lifestyles and also feel the least guilt about their environmental impact. Fenton helped score coverage of the survey’s thought-provoking results, including this exclusive on NPR and this story on The Economist’s blog.
Below, we talk to Eric Whan, GlobeScan’s Director of Sustainability, about the survey’s results and implications.
What is the goal of the Greendex survey?
ERIC: The big picture objective is to measure, motivate, and enable increased sustainable consumption among consumers. We’re also hoping to make a contribution to those working in the field. The Greendex serves as a resource for governments, companies, and NGOS and others interested in working on the sustainability agenda, particularly from the consumer side. It’s used at conferences, presentations, and in educational materials. The tactical objective is to measure and track changes in sustainable behavior over time.
The top-scoring, most sustainable consumers come from India, China, and Brazil, and the lowest-scoring come from the United States, Canada, and Japan. What exactly determines a country’s Greendex score?
ERIC: The Greendex score is a composite index that contains 65 independent variables. Each of those variables is a form of behavior. It’s things like the type of food you eat, the nature of your residence, how you heat your house, how you get to work, the car you drive, and the type of stuff you buy. We weigh all of this information, as informed by experts in the field, and then calculate an overall score to determine the index.
The survey revealed some surprising results: countries that have the highest Greendex scores, such as India and China, also feel the guiltiest about their environmental impact and the most helpless about their ability to change the situation. Why do you think this is the case?
ERIC: One factor is the immediacy and the intensity of environmental problems in places like China and India; people are living and breathing the problems in a much more extreme way than people in less populous places like North America are. The survey showed that consumers in China and India are most concerned about air and water pollution, the most sensitive to the health implications of environmental problems, and the most likely to believe that global warming will worsen their way of life.
With all of that comes a sense of ownership and internalization of environmental issues. I think there’s a recognition that consumer behavior in developing countries has an impact. At the same time, these consumers feel overwhelmed; they’re the most likely to agree that environmental problems are so serious that there’s very little individuals can do about it.
Consumers in India and China recognize that with the pace of development there will be implications, but there’s also an aspiration for material development. So I think people feel a little bit conflicted, and maybe that all sort of buttresses out this tendency to feel guilt. It’s also interesting to see the countries where people feel least empowered are mostly post-communist or socialist states, so that might come into play as well.
Can you address the other extreme? Why do you think that consumers in countries with low Greendex scores, like the United States, are the most likely to think that their individual actions can positively impact the environment, and also feel the least guilty about their behavior?
ERIC: It’s interesting. In the US, the individual is supreme. There’s a culture of consumption here where the customer is always first. I also think that we in the West have been provided with commercial options, such as biodegradable laundry detergent and cleaning supplies, which make us feel like as if we’re making an effort. These sorts of products offer a way for people to buy themselves out of guilt, but the sheer volume of consumption and other forms of consumption are so intensive that it makes a relatively minor difference—and people don’t realize that.
This is the fourth consecutive year you’ve partnered with National Geographic to conduct the Greendex survey. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen since 2008?
I think the most important thing is that there hasn’t been much change. Consumers are stuck on this, five years on. Greendex is meant to be a long term initiative, and we know that behavior change takes time, but society is rapidly transforming itself and we think the area of sustainable consumption needs to get on the bandwagon.
That said, we have seen some changes and learned some important lessons. Especially between 2008 and 2010, we saw more improvements than deteriorations in people’s environmental performance. A lot of that was around housing; people were essentially trying to improve the efficiency of their households, partially because it helps them save money. When you can generate a co-benefit between environment and costs savings, that’s a big driver.
We’ve also seen that regulatory measures can play a big role, such as regulations around plastic bags—we’ve seen this in China. Despite its wicked pace of growth, China’s Greendex scores have improved in all four years—thanks to the state being tremendously active in environmental regulations with consumers and industries. It shows us that development and sustainability don’t have to be mutually exclusive.