Survey Says: U.S. Consumers Suck At Sustainability

Greendex, an annual study conducted by the National Geographic Society and GlobeScan, recently ranked the United States dead last for sustainable behavior. The survey [PDF], which polled 17,000 consumers in 17 different countries, queried participants about such behavior as energy use and conservation, transportation choices, food sources, the relative use of green products versus conventional products, attitudes toward the environment and sustainability, and knowledge of environmental issues.

The results showed that environmentally-friendly behavior among consumers has increased in only five of 17 countries surveyed since 2010. Furthermore, the report showed that consumers in developing nations like India, China, and Brazil are all outpacing industrialized nations in their demonstration of sustainable behaviors. American consumers’ behavior still ranks as the least sustainable of all countries surveyed since the inception of the study, followed by Canadian, Japanese, and French consumers.

Sustainable Behavior

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The reason for this disconnect between optimism and actual behavior change may come from the fact that U.S. consumers are almost never forced to see or pay the price for their wasteful behaviors. We have federal tax subsidies that suppress the real cost of fossil fuels, barges that ship tons of garbage far from our eyes and noses, and a deeply-ingrained sense of entitlement, even to things we really don’t need. The survey found a positive relationship between the extent to which people feel guilty about their impact and the Greendex scores of average consumers in the same countries. Since Americans have very little guilt about their behavior, they’re less inclined to change it.

“There’s a disconnect there, and we hope the Greendex helps shed light on it,” said Eric Whan, GlobeScan’s director of sustainability. ”In our culture of consumption, we’ve sort of been indoctrinated to believe that we can buy ourselves out of environmental problems,” said Whan, who’s based in Toronto, Canada, another country ranked low in the survey. ”But what people need to realize is that the sheer volume of consumption is relevant as well.”

Read more Greendex 2012 results and find out how your country ranked here.

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog