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U.S. Consumers Lag Others in Sustainable Choices

By Ford Cochran

Results of the Greendex survey of sustainable consumption patterns reveal that consumers in most of the 17 countries profiled have adopted more environmentally friendly behaviors over the past year. All but one of the countries polled in both 2008 and 2010 showed improvement over the past two years.

National Geographic and the worldwide polling firm GlobeScan released results of the third annual Greendex survey today. The Greendex tracks behavior across a broad spectrum of areas relating to housing, transportation, food, and consumer goods.

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Compared to the attitude of the average consumer in other countries surveyed, Americans express less concern about environmental problems, and they increasingly consider the seriousness of environmental issues to be exaggerated (31 percent, up from 25 percent). American consumers' behavior still ranks least sustainable among all countries polled--as it has since the inception of the Greendex--followed by that of Canadian and French consumers. There were, however, some improvements in these countries.

As in 2008, individuals in developing economies--India, Brazil, China, and Mexico--earned the best scores among those surveyed. India's consumers ranked #1, followed by Brazil's, for sustainable practices in transportation, goods, food, and household energy use.

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More environmentally sustainable behavior comes despite, and in some cases perhaps because of, the prolonged economic recession. Most consumers who used less energy over the past year cited cost as one of the top two reasons for the decline. Significant percentages, however, also listed environmental concerns as one of the main reasons for the reduction.

Those polled listed suspicion of "greenwashing"--companies making false or exaggerated claims about the environmental benefits of their products--as the most significant deterrent to making more sustainable choices, followed by the sense that individual behavior couldn't do much good if corporations and governments didn't also adopt and enforce sustainable practices.

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I spoke with Eric Whan, Director of Environment and Sustainability at GlobeScan, about some of the implications of this year's Greendex results.

Are you encouraged by the 2010 findings?

There is some basis for optimism. Consumers have lightened their environmental footprint over the last two years. We haven't stepped backward, for the most part, and there've been more gains than losses. That includes the United States, where we see improvement in terms of environmentally sustainable consumption.

People are becoming more and more aware of the need to live sustainably, particularly in the largest emerging economies, which probably have the greatest implications in terms of where the world goes in the coming years. In places such as India, China, and Russia, we're seeing an emerging environmental consciousness. There's a heightened sense of urgency in those three countries.

In China, for example, environmental conditions are such that people can't help but think about air quality and energy consumption. Their economy is growing like crazy, and reliance on dirty fuels such as coal is huge. Car ownership is on the rise there, but still, people in China are much more likely than in a lot of other places to use self-propelled transportation. The Chinese government has gotten behind environmental issues, and is speaking to the people emphatically about them.

What of the factors you identified that discourage people from living sustainably?

There is a lot of attitudinal variation across countries, but there's a broad inclination to want to participate, to want to make a positive difference. What's missing in many places is a lack of leadership, a lack of options, a lack of infrastructure to express the values one holds as a citizen when making consumption choices.

There's another finding we found particularly interesting: We asked people the extent to which they paid attention to the climate conference in Copenhagen. The Chinese were the most likely to have paid attention to it: 81 percent said the followed the conference quite closely. The Canadians and the Russians were the least likely, and only 23 percent of Americans said they followed news about the conference to the degree of 4 or 5 on a five-point scale--fourth from the bottom.

What do you hope to accomplish with the Greendex findings?

The main objective is to provide the information, a baseline reading of where consumers are. And we want to give people the tools to do better. On the website, there are pointers, so you can determine your own Greendex score and learn how to do better.

Its difficult for consumers to think systematically, whole-system on some of these issues. They need to be enabled to make easy choices. I'm driving to the corner store, but it might take me just two more minutes to walk there. Why don't I? Do I really need the big SUV? Is this particular type of seafood I'm about to order sustainably harvested? Is my food more local than from far away? Perhaps the single biggest way consumers can reduce their impact on greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental factors, by the way, is to eat less red meat, or simply stop eating meat.

Why so?

It comes down to the number of resources required to produce a unit amount of food energy: Huge amounts of fertilizer and fossil fuels. Freshwater consumption (higher per unit energy for meat than for grains, vegetables, and most other food sources). The impact on the landscape (pasturing takes up a lot of space, which could be field space for growing vegetables). The deforestation often associated with production of grazing grounds for cattle. Transportation (meat is fairly heavy, and it's often transported long distances). And so on.

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Individuals, politicians, and entrepreneurs need to think about how we're going to motivate people to take action. Some of the issues are easy to fix: Corporate credibility is one thing. Government leadership is another one. And sustainability is a place where government regulation can have a positive impact: Look at the use of plastic shopping bags versus reusable ones in the places where municipalities have banned disposable plastic. We need more of that.

See Greendex scores on an interactive map, calculate your Greendex score, test your knowledge of sustainable consumption choices, and download the complete 2010 Greendex report.

Photos by Jodi Cobb (Indian woman with laundry), Tyrone Turner (cargo container ship), and courtesy National Geographic

Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild--a digest of Society exploration, research, and events--and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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